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Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of Curious Neuron

Let’s rethink tantrums and break them down into brain skills!

Tantrums are emotions, big emotions that happen because a child has not learned how to regulate them yet. We need to offer them tools and help them build skills to be able to do this.

However, it isn’t easy. Many factors play into this. Their environment, their temperament, their development, etc. In fact, even if we teach them skills, they tend to go away in adolescence due to changes in the brain.

What is emotion regulation?

Emotion regulation is a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience. Emotion regulation is complex and rooted in our childhood environment. There are also cognitive or brain skills involved that can be worked on individually.

There are a few skills you can work on with your child. Here are my top 3:

Inhibitory Control

Have you ever played Simon Says, the game where you can only do the action IF the person says Simon Says before (i.e. Simon says touch your nose!)? If the person only says “Touch your nose” you have to stop or inhibit yourself from doing it. This is a skill and is involved in emotion regulation. It can be practiced with lots of games! (there is a game you can print out to practice this on the Wondergrade app!)

Decision Making

If something happens in your environment and you managed to stop yourself from exploding, the next step is deciding what to do with your emotions and how to behave/respond. We can work on this by thinking out loud with our children and talking through events after they happened (i.e. “you seemed frustrated before you hit your brother, what made you feel this way? Could you have reacted differently?).

Perspective Taking

Understanding the emotional situation from the other person’s perspective is very powerful in emotion regulation. It also involves social skills like empathy. Being open about how you feel or how the other person felt in a situation could help your child build this (“How do you think jack felt when you told him he wasn’t your friend anymore?”). Discussing the characters in books is helpful too.

A parent’s emotion regulation skills matter too

How we regulate our own emotions around our children and with our partner influences how our child regulates their own (do we internalize our emotions and always pretend we are fine? Do we externalize and yell?

A note about neurodivergent children

Emotion regulation skills can be much more challenging to work on with neurodivergent children and each skill mentioned in this post may take longer to develop.

Let’s rethink tantrums and break them down into brain skills and more strategies to work on emotion regulation with our kids. It takes much more work to help them. Get to know them to understand how their brain functions and how you can support them.

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