Why You Should Be Glad When Your Kid Throws a Tantrum (Maybe): Emotional Regulation in Children

Rebecca is sprawled on the floor, thrashing, the hairs of her undone ponytail wet against her tear-stained cheeks. Between hysterical cries and moments of holding her breath, the child exclaims, “I want that doll!”

While Mommy’s nerves may get frazzled from the heightened noise levels, Rebecca’s tantrum may not only be appropriate but also a crucial part of her development.

But here’s the critical question: How old is Rebecca? The answer will determine whether Rebecca’s behavior is a necessary part of her development or a sign of inappropriate regulation.

Here’s why.

Regulation, a big word in our practice, is key to healthy child development. Regulation is the ability to manage emotions, behaviors and thoughts based on the environment and the situation, and to produce an appropriate response. Appropriate regulation is an indicator for developed social skills, academic performance, and emotional intelligence.

Observing how a child responds to a trigger or stimulus—if he’s able to calm down when he’s upset or to express happiness appropriately, how he deals with changes in his environment, etc.—gives us a clue regarding his ability to regulate.

The three main categories of regulation are:

  • Emotional regulation
  • Behavioral regulation
  • Cognitive regulation   

For this post, we’re going to focus on the first and most fundamental category: emotional regulation.

So What is Emotional Regulation, Anyway?

Emotional regulation is the child’s ability to express and manage his emotions. It’s the ability to understand what it means to have an emotion and to identify it correctly. An emotionally-regulated child is able to tap in to the actual emotion he’s feeling and express himself accordingly, whether he’s happy, sad, satisfied, frustrated, or angry.

Ben is a seven year old boy. During breakfast on the first day of second grade, his mother asks him how he’s feeling. “Excited,” he tells her. “And a little scared, too.” During recess, Ben laughs with glee as he whizzes down the highest slide in the playground. When he comes home, he tells his mother how happy he was that he gets to sit next to his best friend. And when he comes into his room and finds his little sister taking papers out of his backpack, he yells at her and pushes her away. “Why did you do that?” his mother asks. “Because she makes me so mad!” is Ben’s response.

On the other hand, a child who is not emotionally regulated – often exhibited in children on the autistic spectrum – may not even know what he’s feeling. He may only identify emotions generally and concretely, in a “black or white” way. Or the child may know what he is feeling, but not be able to express it properly. Without the outlet of expression, he can be overwhelmed by the emotional intensity and shut down all lines of communication.

Sammy is a nine year old with Aspergers. When you ask Sammy how he’s feeling, he is either “feeling good” or “feeling bad.” This is the case whether he is running around playing tag, sick in bed with the flu, cuddled in bed waiting to be tucked in or his little brother just knocked down the tower Sammy spent two hours building. For Sammy, “good” and “bad” are the only feelings that exist.

Six year old Debra had been anticipating her birthday party for weeks. But the morning of the party, she wasn’t expressing any of the excitement that her mother expected. Debra barely ate breakfast, then holed up in her room and refused to talk to anyone. “You’ve been excited about your birthday for weeks,” her mother tried. “How do you feel this morning?” Debra shrugged. She was excited – very excited! But the intensity of the emotion without access to the words and actions to express it just shut her down.

Without the ability to emotionally regulate, we don’t control our emotions; they control us. We operate in an instinctive, knee-jerk matter. When the brain is flooded by unchecked, unregulated emotion, it has no ability to access its higher levels. Regulating behavior? Regulating thought? No chance!

Emotional regulation is the core and the stepping stone to all subsequent levels of human self-regulation.

How Does Emotional Regulation Develop?

Emotional regulation isn’t present at birth. But the tools to start the developmental process kick in right away. The earliest types of stimuli an infant recognizes are physiological – basically various versions of “comfortable” and “uncomfortable.”

Hungry. Wet. Cold. When a stimuli registers as “uncomfortable,” his sympathetic nervous system triggers a fight or flight response. Waaaaah!

In a healthy environment, the caregiver steps in to perform a behavior that physically regulates the infant. She feeds the baby, changes the baby’s diaper, puts on another layer of clothing.

Full. Dry. Warm. Now perceiving that his body is comfortable, the infant’s nervous system calms down. This is physiological regulation. His body is in a state of balance until… he gets hungry again. Or dirty. Or tired. Waaaaah!

This process of physiological deregulation and regulation is repeated and enforced many times a day, every day.

At the same time that the caregiver is fulfilling the child’s physical needs, enabling the child to physically regulate himself, she is also creating a pathway for social-emotional regulation as well. The baby’s emotional response to being in physiological balance is “Now I am content and happy.” (Not in so many words, obviously. It’s a primitive form of “content and happy,” but it’s there.) Through the mother’s repeated response to the baby’s cries, the baby makes the connection, “When I am hungry and cry, then I get taken care of and then I am happy and content.”

The process of going from emotional dysregulation (SAD! UPSET! ANGRY!) to regulation (happy, content) is repeated and reinforced, and the caregiver’s role in the process introduces a social component to the emotional experience.

The child’s basis for emotional regulation continues to develop up until around 18 months to 2 years of age. The infant detects sensors in the environment—including non-verbal cues and the tone of voice and facial expressions of his caregivers—to make sense of his own emotional world. In fact, in a 2014 peer-reviewed study, researchers found that a baby can tell the differences in their caregiver’s facial expressions faster than another adult observer.

With the simultaneous development of the nervous system, the child gradually learns to pick up more cues regarding appropriate emotions. With regulation comes his understanding of not only which feelings are appropriate to which circumstances, but also how they should be expressed.

Because the basis for emotional regulation is formed at such a young age, we often find that when a child is developmentally delayed, the parents will report having had a gut feeling of this beforehand, based on the child’s lack of emotional awareness in infancy and as a toddler. If a child failed to capture the requisite emotional cues by three years of age, they can be taught later on, but the process is much more difficult because the critical period when these skills are naturally reinforced has already passed.

So Why are Tantrums a Good Thing?

In order to understand, let’s first define a tantrum. A tantrum is a display of very strong emotions put on in order to attain some goal. In Rebecca’s case, all the way back at the beginning of this post, there was a doll she wanted which she wasn’t getting. Her little sister’s doll? Her neighbor’s doll? The doll she saw that afternoon in the toy store? It doesn’t matter. But what matters is that in Rebecca’s mind, there is a goal. She wants that doll in her arms.

So Rebecca will cry, and scream, and throw herself on the floor, and hold her breath – all in the hopes that those displays will somehow get her that doll.

As we mentioned above, by the time the child is 2, the basis for emotional regulation is in place. At 2 to 3 years of age, a child is developing independence. She is gaining a sense of self and of her own needs and desires. She is realizing that the people around her are entities separate from herself, with their own desires. She is learning that she can interact with them and influence them (the fundamentals of behavioral regulation).

When Rebecca throws a tantrum, she is asserting that independence and awareness of others. She realizes that her desire (to get the doll) runs counter to her mother’s desire (to not give her the doll). Rebecca uses every emotional reaction at her disposal to try and influence her mother to give in to Rebecca’s desire.

Rebecca isn’t “out of control,” even though her mother may use that word. Rebecca is in fact very much in control, as she keeps tabs on how her mother is responding and changes her own reactions and behaviors accordingly.

The litmus test: what would happen if Rebecca’s mother gave in and handed Rebecca the coveted doll? If she would immediately or gradually calm down, that was a tantrum. Rebecca had a goal; she used all the means at her disposal to attain her goal; she attained her goal. Now she can abandon the means.

While tantrums are a sign of emotional regulation and development when they occur at 2-3 years, if a child is throwing tantrums at 6, it is often a sign of dysregulation. By that age, a child’s regulatory abilities should have developed to the point where they have more advanced coping skills and more advanced negotiation skills.

A tantrum is very different than a meltdown, even though it can look similar. A meltdown (at any age) is a sign of emotional dysregulation, a true loss of control. If Rebecca’s mother had handed her the doll and she would have continued to scream, cry and thrash, that would be a meltdown.  

How to Foster Emotional Regulation in Your Children

Sometimes the emotional regulation process doesn’t proceed “as planned.” The reasons can often be beyond your control as a parent, like a pervasive developmental disorder. But if you’re aware and proactive, you can have a strong impact on your child’s “default” development of emotional regulation.

Here are three practical ways you can promote healthy emotional regulation in your child:

1. Modeling

Because infants unconsciously pick up emotional cues from their environment, parents can do good modeling when they reflect appropriate facial expressions to their infant, such as making a sad face when the child looks uncomfortable, or reflecting a smile when the child is happy.

But don’t just stop at facial expressions. Even as infants, children benefit from being spoken to. Although the infant can’t yet offer a verbal response, communicating your emotions to your child, especially making appropriate sounds to convey emotion, such as “Uh oh!” when an egg cracks, or “Hooray!” when the child crawls, exposes him to important cues.

As the infant grows into a toddler, verbal communication of emotions becomes key. Speak to your child about how you feel, using specific terms to identity your emotions: disappointed, excited, upset, etc. If the child’s babysitter or caregiver is not talkative, have the child listen to music with stories or read books together that build emotional regulation.

2. Deep Breathing

When parents who are trying to help their child with emotional regulation consult with us, we discuss the power of deep breathing. Breathing and emotion are interrelated: if an individual doesn’t have good control of their emotions, they’re probably not breathing properly. Holding our breath, which we do when we’re afraid, is a protective response; it helps us preserve energy. When children do this while crying, they’re literally creating more energy to survive.  

When we teach kids about deep breathing, we tell them to visualize a balloon. When you inhale, we explain, you’re filling it up with air. When you breathe out, the air comes out of the balloon and it flies away. We often ask the child’s parents to join us in the exercise because this is something they too might want to practice.

3. Movement

When children are physically active, they are better able to interpret their emotions.

How does that work?

Ever wake up from a dream and feel confused about where you were? For those first few wakeful moments, you weren’t sure which direction you were facing or what position your body was in.

Very disorienting, wasn’t it?

The innate sense of where our bodies are in space gives us internal regulation and a feeling of stability. When we have that stability (which we usually take for granted), we’re able to devote our focus to the other aspects of our internal life, like our emotions and our thoughts.

Imagine if that physiological “where am I?” feeling persisted past the first few moments. Would you be able to devote any great attention to your emotions or your thoughts? (Ask anyone who has experienced vertigo for an extended period of time. It throws every aspect of life off-balance!)

The infant and early childhood years are when the sensory systems that control your child’s sense of where his body is in space (called the vestibular and proprioceptive systems) are developing. The more input they get from age-appropriate movement, the more effectively they develop.

When your child crawls, walks, runs, jumps, rolls and climbs, they are not only getting exercise. They are giving their vestibular and proprioceptive systems the feedback they need for healthy development. With an in-balance, regulated body, your child will have the availability to process, interpret and regulate her emotions.

What can you do as a parent?

Encourage physical activity in your children!

  • Make trips to the park a frequent activity.
  • Get down to wrestle or roll around on the floor.
  • Get up to jump and dance!
  • Throw balls around.
  • Do somersaults, cartwheels and headstands.
  • Play follow the leader or tag.
  • Scoot around on bicycles, tricycles and kiddie riding toys.

At the same time, minimize screentime or other activities that keep kids in the same position for long periods of time.

Honestly, children will naturally find plenty of ways to move and use their energy. (Did you ever have to teach a kid to jump on a bed?)

It’s our job and challenge as parents to welcome and provide appropriate frameworks for that energy and movement, and not make it a habit of redirecting it into “calmer,” stationary activities. (That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a time for “calmer” activities, like reading and drawing. But if that’s what your young child is doing for the majority of his day, it’s a disservice to his development.)

Appreciating the Tantrum

We’re not expecting you to jump for joy the next time your toddler lies down in the middle of the supermarket and kicks and screams because you said he couldn’t have the candy. We can’t do that ourselves. (Even though we have worked with parents of very developmentally delayed children who would have been thrilled to see their non-responsive 2 year old throwing a tantrum.)

But as you try to avoid the stares or well-meaning advice of the other shoppers, try to take a step back and appreciate the tantrum for what it is.

  • A healthy reaction for a child who is growing in independence and awareness.
  • A building block of emotional regulation that is readying your child to move to the next stage of development.
  • An opportunity for you to model more advanced emotional regulation, both in how you do react to the tantrum (calmly) and how you don’t react to the tantrum (giving in).

It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.

We wish all of us the ability to appreciate the moment and maximize the moment to help our children take another step in the direction of healthy emotional regulation.

father helping child take a step in the direction of healthy emotional regulation

A version of this post appeared as an article in The Wellspring magazine.

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