Michael Potegal explains to The New York Times that a temper tantrum is made up of anger and what he calls ‘distress’ or ‘sadness plus’. “In studies of typically developing children, anger is most likely shown at the beginning of a tantrum, and then declines, while distress behaviors tend to be pretty constant throughout,” the article explains. When a temper tantrum ends in crying, it is a sign of reconciliation, Potegal explains. Parents can find difficulty in reconciling a temper tantrum when it is untimely, inconvenient, and feels embarrassing. Realizing the anatomy of a temper tantrum can help parents reconcile the emotional experience wit themselves and with their children.
Anger and Distress
Anger is the primary emotional force in a temper tantrum though it is not a primary emotion in itself. Anger is a secondary emotion, most often driven by fear and sadness. A survival response of the fight or flight system, anger is a reaction to a trigger in the internal or external environment. Distress can be defined as “extreme anxiety” which is what children are experiencing in a temper tantrum. Anxious and overwhelmed, there is nowhere for their emotions to go and no way for an adequate expression. Feeling completely inundated by inconsolable emotion, a child becomes distressed.
Don’t Tell Them To Use Their Words
A temper tantrum is a direct demonstration that words are lost. A small child who is barely learning to speak is not much different from an older child, adolescent, or teenager who is just gaining an emotional vocabulary sufficient enough to express their deep and complex emotions. A child having a temper tantrum is being overcome by stimulating electrical and chemical reactions. The idea that a parental assertion, “Use your words” should immediately slice through that experience is farcical. Trying to hush, limit, or control a child’s emotional experience is a direct conflict. Instead, parents should hold space for the temper tantrum, most importantly realizing that a child’s emotional experience is not a reflection of parenting. During the emotional display, question the events which took place before, the child’s behaviors, and look for signs of what may have triggered the temper tantrum. Once a child has emotionally exhausted themselves, there is a great learning opportunity. Rather than demean and condescend a lack of emotional intelligence, use a temper tantrum as an opportunity for learning.
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