The following article is an excerpt from the excellent book, The Science of Parenting: How today's brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children by Margot Sunderland
The RAGE, FEAR, and SEPARATION distress systems are already set up at birth to support a baby's survival. They are designed to be so in order to save infants from being eaten by predators, and to keep them close to mom. The potential dangers in the modern world are very different, but nevertheless, everyday events can easily trigger one or more of these systems in your infant's brain. For example, his fear system may be triggered when a door slams, or his rage system when you try to dress him, or his separation distress system when you walk out of a room. Infants keep getting overwhelmed by the triggering of these brain systems beause there is so little higher rational brain functioning "on-line" yet to help them think, reason, and calm down.
This is important to understand when faced with a genuinely distressed or screaming baby or child. He needs your help to calm down. With consistently emotionally responsive parenting, your child's frontal lobes will start to develop essential brain pathways that will, over time, enable him to calm these alarm states in his lower brain.
A distress tantrum means that one or more of the three alarm systems (rage, fear and/or separation) in your child's lower brain has been very strongly activated. As a result, your child's arousal system will be way out of balance, with too-high levels of stress chemicals searing through his body and brain.
Distress tantrums happen because essential brain pathways between a child's higher brain and his lower brain haven't developed yet. These brain pathways are necessary to enable a child to manage his big feelings. As a parent, your role is to soothe your child while he experiences the huge hormonal storms in his brain and body. If you get angry with a child for having a distress tantrum, he may stop crying, but this may also mean that the fear system in his brain has triggered, over-riding his separation system. Or he may simply have shifted into silent crying, which means his level of the stress chemical cortisol will remain sky-high. As we have seen throughout brain research, uncomforted distress can leave a child with toxic levels of stress hormones washing over the brain.
This brain scan shows that the primal, core brain (sometimes called 'lower' brain or 'inner' brain) is activated when a child or baby is distressed (red/orange) while many outer brain or frontal lobe areas are deactivated (purple/blue).
Children can't talk or listen well when distressed.
The dramatic brain and body changes of a distress tantrum hijack your child's thinking functions and the verbal centers in his higher brain that control the comprehension and expression of speech. It is important to understand this because trying to talk to your child during a distress tantrum, or expecting him to talk about his feelings, is a waste of time. All he can do is discharge his emotions.
A distress tantrum needs sensitive handling.
It is important that you take a genuine distress tantrum seriously and meet your child's pain of loss, frustration, or acute disappointment with sympathy and understanding. When you do this, you will be helping your child to develop vital stress-regulating systems in his higher brain. Repeatedly getting angry with a child's genuine distress can mean that the child never develops effective inhibitory mechanisms in his higher brain. Picture a man who often loses his temper in a restaurant, or violently kicks a faulty vending machine -- in early life he may have missed out on the vital parenting that would have helped him manage rage. (1, 2, 3)
Regulating childhood distress is a key task for all parents, teachers, and other caregivers.
Receiving help to manage intense feelings of rage, frustration, or distress means that a child can develop the brain pathways that enable him to calm himself down when under stress. If we don't respond to a genuine distress tantrum and, instead, adopt a fixed approach to all tantrums, we lose a vital opportunity to sculpt a child's brain in a positive way. It is deeply reassuring to a child to know that an adult can calm and understand the volcanic storms that rip through his body and brain. It is most disturbing to a child that when he is in terrible emotional pain his Mommy or Daddy gets angry or just walks away from him.
How to handle distress tantrums:
Your role is to give your child a sense of safety, comfort, and reassurance when he is having a distress tantrum. These techniques can all help to calm your child.
1. Use simple, calm actions or provide a simple choice. For example, if your child is upset about getting dressed, ask him whether he wants to wear his blue or his brown pants.
2. Distraction is a wonderful, often underused technique. It activates the seeking system in your child's lower brain and makes him feel curious and interested in something. It can naturally override the brain's rage or distress systems. It also triggers a high level of dopamine, a great positive arousal chemical in the brain, which reduces stress and triggers interest and motivation. (4)
3. Hold your child tenderly. Sometimes it really helps to hold a distressed child, but you must feel calm and in control yourself. Being next to your calm body will bring his over aroused body and brain systems back into balance and release natural, calming oxytocin and opioids. Say simple words such as, "I know, I know." (Words alone, however, will not strongly release these wonderful chemicals.) If his rage system has been triggered, as well as his distress system, and he is throwing things around the room or hitting or biting, you will need to use a holding technique.
4. Sometimes a child will feel safe and contained just by you sitting down calmly next to him and talking gently. Some children find this preferable to being held, because it allows them the freedom to move.
5. Avoid using the time-out technique during a distress tantrum. You wouldn't walk away from your best friend or send her to a time-out room if she was writhing and sobbing on the floor, so this is certainly not appropriate for children, who have far fewer emotional resources than adults. Using time out for a child in distress would also mean missing a vital opportunity for rage and distress regulation and establishing effective stress-regulating systems in the brain.
6. Avoid putting a child in a room on his own during a distress tantrum. Although the child may stop vocal crying, he may continue to cry internally-something that research shows is more worrisome. (5, 6) Whereas vocal crying is a request for help, silent, internal crying is a sign that the child has lost faith that help will come (learned helplessness). In some people, this tragic loss of faith can stay for life.
7. Remind yourself that a child's distress is genuine. A two year-old who is screaming because his sibling has snatched a toy car is not just making a fuss. Research shows that a sense of loss activates the pain centers in the brain, causing an agonizing opioid withdrawal. (7) Because small children have been in the world for only a few years, they don't have a clear perspective on life. As adults, we have a backdrop of events and experiences that tell us that the loss of a toy car is a minor disappointment. But for a small child, this loss can mean everything. If a child is repeatedly punished for grief fueled tantrums (grief often includes rage), the lesson he learns is: "Mommy cannot manage or understand my grief." As a result, he is likely to switch off feelings of hurt because they are no longer safe to have. And this has consequences for how a child manages his feelings into adulthood.
1) Brody GH, et. al (1982). Contributions of parents and peers to children's moral socialization. Developmental Review 2:31-75.
2) Haley, DW, et. al (2003). Infant stress and parent responsiveness: regulation of physiology and behavior. Child Development 74(5):1534-46.
3) Barbas H, et. al (2003). Serial pathways from primate prefontal cortex to autonomic areas may influence emotional expression. Neuroscience 10(4):25.
4) Panksepp, J (1998). Affective Neuroscience. Oxford University Press, New York: 54.
5) Gunnar MR (1989). Studies of the human infant's adrenocortical response to potentially stressful events. New Directions for Child Development Fall (3-18).
6) Hertgaard, L, et al. (1995) Adrenocortical responses to the strange situation in infants with disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships. Child Development 66:1100-06.
7) Panksepp, J (2003). Neuroscience: Feeling the pain of social loss. Science 302(5643):237-39.