Understanding Temper Tantrums:

How They Start, What They Are & How To Response

We’ve all had them & we’ve all witnessed them – Temper Tantrums!

Temper tantrums are an expression of “ negative” emotion or burst of energy usually associated with children in their younger years. 

As members of a society based on unspoken rules, like the rules of decorum or proper manners, we view temper tantrums as a nuisance or problem and the kids who have them as being undisciplined, rude or unruly. 

But what would it be like if we changed our view on tantrums and look at them with curiosity instead of condemnation?

Dr. Mona Delahooke is one of those people examining children, tantrums and their connection to the body. Her book Brain-Body Parenting discusses this concept in greater depth. 

Below, we’ll explore how both Clinical Psychologists and Neuroscientists explain tantrums. 


For a long time most parenting experts believed that temper tantrums were no more than defiant behavior from children. The act was intentional on the part of the child and the tantrum was thrown as a way to manipulate the response of the parent and was just a last ditch effort by the child to move the situation back in their favor.

Now, Psychologists and Neuroscientists are offering another perspective. Delahooke believes that instead of a disruptive, explosive act of defiance brought on by the child, tantrums are actually no more than a physiological response to being over-stimulated by external factors. 

Let’s explore this idea more. 


So, what exactly does this mean? 

It means that unlike the popular belief, Delahooke suggests, the child is not throwing the tantrum, the tantrum is throwing the child. 

The child is not causing a scene or throwing a fit inorder to get their way, they’re actually responding to their senses and surroundings which can push them into fight, flight or freeze, resulting in outward behavior that can be viewed as erratic and misunderstood. 

Psychologists believe that we all have a “body budget” which controls the level of tolerance we have for external factors like lack of sleep, sensory over load or hunger. When we are well feed, rested and calm, we can effectively regulate our emotions, but as those resources deplete, so to does our ability to regulate our emotions and behavior

This is backed by both science and anecdotal experiences like how kids are more likely to have a tantrum when they missed their usual afternoon nap, which is so commonly the case.

So how should parents respond? 


When responding to “tantrum like” behavior, parents can either fuel the fire or help calm the flames by correcting our instinctual frustration response and changing our language, tone or stance to be less intimidating or stimulating. 

By providing support and connection to our children in their time of need, we help them regulate their bodies response and allow them to feel safe. 

Consider responding to the a tantrum with words like, “I understand this is hard”, While re-stating instructions calmly and firmly and helping them work out the energy in their bodies. 

By offering a calm and collected response, we can help de-escalate the situation and help our children learn to self-regulate. 

This new perspective on tantrums will take some adjusting to, as we have decades of experience telling us the opposite. The key is to not be too hard on yourself when you temporarily slip into old habits. 

It should be stated that adults also have a capacity for stimuli and should try their best to honor their own needs. A saying that comes to mind is “ You can’t pour from an empty cup”. By filling our own cup with better sleep, activities we love and showing our selves compassion, we set a loving example for our children. 

Interested in exploring how this new theory and technique can be incorporated into your parenting? Consider working with a member of our team, specialized in family therapy!

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