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This Is What’s Happening In Your Kid’s Brain When They Throw A Tantrum

Adults have learned to control their primitive impulses, but self-control doesn’t apply to children.

by Alison Zeidman
Originally Published: 
A child crying and throwing a tantrum
Mareen Fischinger/Getty

Occasionally your kid is an little angel, but the rest of the time they’re balling up tiny fists of fury. By now, you’ve accepted that young Bruce Banner can turn into the not-so-adorable Hulk at any moment, so don’t you want to know what triggers it? Because Hulk…he’s not the kind of guy that’s going to sit quietly through brunch. (Mimosa, smash!)

“Neuroscience has shown there are circuits that are activated for anger and aggression in response to different triggers,” says R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D., senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health and author of Why We Snap. “It’s part of the brain’s threat detection mechanism. The key concept is this anger and aggression exists to fight, and exists for violence because we need it.”

So your kid’s anger is actually natural and necessary physiological response which stems from those early human, cave-dwelling days, when things with sharp teeth saw human beings as fleshy bite-sized snacks. Those days are over, but we still have vestiges of those fight or flight responses. But while adults have learned to control those primitive impulses (that guy at your kid’s soccer games excepted), self-control doesn’t apply to children.

(To learn Fatherly’s best advice on how to stop temper tantrums, click here.)

According to Dr. Fields, kids are missing some of the essential hardwiring that can control anger misfires. To them, there’s no difference between getting attacked by a Sabretooth tiger and not getting to watch Daniel Tiger. Here’s what’s actually going through your child’s mind when they’re losing it, and how you can keep things calm.

It’s All About The L.I.F.E.M.O.R.T.S.

Dr. Fields has named 9 distinct triggers that can make anyone snap, using an acronym that sounds like your Jewish grandfather’s motorcycle club: L.I.F.E.M.O.R.T.S.

  • Life-or-death situation – Protecting yourself
  • Insult – Protecting your rep
  • Family – Protecting your brood
  • Environment – Protecting your castle
  • Mate – Protecting your squeeze
  • Order in Society – Protecting liberty and justice for all
  • Resources – Protecting your stuff
  • Tribe – Protecting people like you
  • Stopped – Protecting you from yourself

These are the mechanisms that cause explosive human behavior which, in the most extreme cases, can result in violent rage or a brutal attack. In kids, the most frequent trigger being set off is the “S,” for “Stopped” — like when you tell them to stop doing something every 30 seconds.

Don’t Try To Stop It Before It Starts

Since stopping kids from doing things is the biggest trigger, is the solution to let them go? Dr. Fields says that it’s important to recognize the fact that kids can’t control their rage responses the same way an adult can. “I think it’s helpful for parents to realize that there’s no point in appealing to them to stop being angry — you’re appealing to a part of the brain that’s not developed,” he says. “Another part of the brain is raging and taking control of all the behavior right now. What you have to do is wait it out, they have to calm down, and once they will calm down, then you can begin to intervene and to help them solve the problem.”

Let Them Know That It’s OK To Be Angry

“Telling them that they shouldn’t get angry in the situation isn’t very helpful. What they need to know is why they’re angry, and why they’re angry in a biological sense,” says Dr. Fields. “This is normal. You’re not trying to suppress anything.”

By getting your kids in touch with those angry feelings early and often, you’re creating a roadmap for later in life — when they’re teenagers and really have something to be angry about.

Provide A Nurturing Environment, But Encourage Self-Control

Since our brains continue to evolve after birth, environmental factors can rewire how we deal with threat responses. “You can control the environment to the extent possible and provide a nurturing environment, but you can also help build the circuitry,” says Dr. Fields. “Fundamentally, circuitry is inhibiting the snap response, and much of the same circuitry is involved in inhibiting other behaviors.” He’s talking about self-control, and while your can’t tinker with your kid’s circuitry like C3PO, you can show them that you’ve got their back.

Get Them Involved in Sports

In Why We Snap, big mountain skier Wendy Fisher explains how her father discouraged the negative, Williams Sisters-like impulses you often see in athletes who aren’t happy with their performance. It’s bad sportsmanship, but it’s also poor self-control. “Fundamentally, that’s one of the greatest benefits of sports is self-control under stress,” says Dr. Fields. “So many LIFEMORTS triggers are triggered in competition, so parents should really take advantage of that.” There’s just no crying in baseball.

The Difference Between Boys And Girls

You can be a progressive, empathetic man who dresses your kid in neutral colors and encourages gender non-conforming toys — but brain chemistry differs between the sexes. And, when it comes to snapping and aggression, “there’s a huge difference, so parents need to be aware of that, and look for the different kinds of aggression,” says Dr. Fields. “One example is that women and girls tend to self-harm. Girls tend to turn the violence on themselves.” Well, there goes thinking that raising a daughter would be easy.

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