Have you ever seen a toddler have a meltdown in the grocery store? Or maybe it was your toddler? It's embarrassing for everybody!
Why does that happen?
And why do teenagers have so much drama?
These questions are related, and by understanding what's behind this, we can respond in ways that minimize angry tantrums at any age.
Emotions, including anger and anxiety or fear, are an extremely important part of life, giving us essential information about threats and opportunities, but they need to be properly channeled and managed by the thinking system of the brain. We can call this “emotional regulation,” and newborns begin learning this from their parents from the moment of birth. The parents or caregivers are the “master regulators” for the family, so they need to continuously develop this ability in themselves.
Sometimes parents may not have gotten enough of this themselves growing up, but we'll be talking about practical steps to move yourself along no matter what level you are at.
Regulating is what a thermostat does, keeping the heat or air conditioning at a level that is healthy and comfortable. We don't want to have the heat cranked up too high, or not have any heat at all! Without emotions we wouldn't be able to connect to others or make decisions (people with brain damage in the emotional system can't make decisions.)
We need the information and motivation that emotions provide, but it's not good if they run the show. The thinking system needs to process the information, while sending calming messages back down to regulate the emotions.
Sometimes it seems like we don't have any control over this, and we behave in ways that we later regret. I think of the old line by comedian Flip Wilson, “The Devil made me do it!” It does feel like a powerful outside force is to blame.
But that powerful force is not “the Devil,” but rather our strong, deep, biological drives to survive and reproduce. Our society has tended to minimize the role of emotions and to focus on thinking, but actually the thinking system developed much later than the emotional system.
The thumb folded in is the limbic system, the “squirrel brain,” responsible for emotions.
The fingers are the cortex, the “human brain,” that wraps around the emotional system.
If the thinking system is offline, with fingers detached, we call that “flipping our lid.”
You've probably seen a toddler fall down and look at its mother to know whether to cry or not. Even as adults we look for social cues on how to respond – for example when someone makes a remark and we don't know whether to take it seriously. Calendar Girls bake-off If one person takes it as a joke and starts to laugh, the others will usually follow suit.
So what are some ways to keep the adult thinking system in contact with the emotional system, so we can avoid angry outbursts and tantrums in ourselves and others?
The first step is to notice that emotions are arising and briefly pause, so we can choose a action rather than being swept away. King Solomon recognized this about 3000 years ago in the Biblical Book of Proverbs, chapter 15, verse 1, when he wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” We've all been told to count to 10 when we are angry.
When we start, it may only be afterwards that we notice that emotions were out of control. In that case, look back and identified what triggered the emotions, and make a plan for the next time a similar situation occurs. “When we get home from vacation tired and cranky, I will be alert to the possibility of a fight and will go to the basement first thing to start the laundry.”
As we practice, we may start to notice in the middle of reacting with anger, at which point we can have a plan to say, “Whoa, I see I'm getting upset here, I'm going to take 5 minutes to calm down and I'll get back to you.”
Eventually we can get to the point of noticing before the reaction starts, and use internal or external resources to help regulate our own emotions so we can get better results.
With babies, we feed and change them to remove sources of physical discomfort. The same thing is a good idea for adults – in 12-Step recovery programs they say “Don't get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired” - H.A.L.T. All of those things trigger messages of physical or relational threat which fuel the fires of emotion – anger and anxiety.
With toddlers, we lend them our own calm and soothe their emotional distress with human connection. We hug them when they hurt themselves and offer to kiss the boo-boo and make it better. This is another deep bit of folk wisdom. Hugging releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin. The child's mirror neurons receive the transmission of our calmness. Kissing the boo-boo leverages the bond of love and trust between parent and child. The child feels heard and understood, which soothes the emotional pain triggered by the physical pain. We can get a hug or reassurance from someone else to “borrow” some calm from them. We can even hug ourselves or place a hand on our own heart to release some oxytocin.
When 7-year-old Joel was having his cast removed, he asked for something to look at while they were doing it. Already at seven he grasped the usefulness of distraction. We've all done this to manage physical or emotional pain in the short-term. Blistering expletives distract from a stubbed toe, or a bowl of ice cream temporarily distracts from emotional pain.
Meditation and mindfulness techniques can be very useful resources when emotions rise. A good process is sitting with both feet on the ground, locating the emotion in the body, identifying the category of emotion, and permitting it to be present and to move on.
Finally, we can use the thinking system itself to dampen the waves of emotions, because although emotions are a primary message about threats or opportunities, they can be perpetuated or aggravated by habitual negative thought patterns that we all have. We can use therapy or a process like Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behavioral Training to choose better thoughts.
In conclusion, if we NOTICE AND PAUSE so we can choose a helpful response, and avoid flipping our lids with angry outbursts, we will get better relationships and results in our lives, while showing others the right way to manage ourselves.