Managing the meltdowns: What causes child anger?

Our children’s anger and meltdowns can feel excruciating!

I vividly remember the embarrassment of my four year old sister’s, in the middle of a Turkish airport, five minutes before boarding – the perfect spot! We had the screams, the tears and the classic “I will not be moved” protest on the airport floor. We’d had plenty of these moments before and, my gosh, we would have plenty more! So, what gives me a vivid recollection of this one? 

In the midst of the screams, a little girl tugged on her Mum’s sleeve and loudly ‘whispered’, “Why isn’t her mummy saying anything?”.  Embarrassed, the Mum shushed the girl. But, the girl’s naivety and lack of filter speaks to a common misconception – child meltdowns are because of bad parenting.

So, what happens in our brain during a meltdown?

Simply put, the fire alarm is sounding. Scientifically, this alarm is actually a tiny part of our brain called the amygdala and it’s responsible for detecting danger in our environment. The amygdala is primitive and often we can’t be aware of the exact thing that’s set it off. In everyday life, it could be something as subtle as the temperature of the room or somebody’s tone of voice.  

We need this alarm to keep us safe. I would hope that my alarm would sound very loudly and tell my brain to release cortisol, if a fire came gushing through the door. Cortisol is a stress hormone, which gives us that ‘rush’ of energy in an emergency. This rush automatically prepares us to fight or flee the danger. Pretty handy for survival, right?

Although when we hear a fire alarm, we can never be sure as to what has set it off. We need a fire brigade to explore whether a candle tipped over or someone left the dinner in the oven for too long. Our brain’s fire brigade is the prefrontal cortex. It helps us to think rationally in times of stress and make the best decisions possible in times of danger. 

We’d like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex to work as a team all of the time. Although, the prefrontal cortex has a habit of leaving the fire station and jetting off on holiday when things get a bit too much- leaving the alarm to sound continuously with no one to switch it off. This is why we struggle to reason effectively with a child in a meltdown. We are trying to talk to the child’s fire brigade (prefrontal cortex) when they have checked out of the station and gone offline. We are left with only a sounding alarm – talking to it isn’t much use! The best thing we can do is convince the alarm that the primitive danger has passed and soothe it back to silence. Heads up – that is not done by logical talking or consequences.

If you’d like to hear more about how my Mum handled the meltdown and how safety cues can help, stay put for our next post! In the meantime, check out our social media for more tips on how to manage meltdowns or have a go at our online course ‘Taming your lion’ for 7-11year olds. The course has some great techniques for managing those big emotions.

Take care,

Pocket Family Psychologist

Written by Ellie Harper

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