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Taming the Tantrums

Is your family struggling with meltdowns? Big emotions fall under the umbrella of tantrums or emotional dysregulation and are developmentally appropriate as little kids learn how to process them. Don’t despair as there are things that the family unit can do to tame those tantrums. 

It Starts in the Brain

Anger is the emotion that fuels a tantrum, which peaks in ages 3-4. These little ones experience a wider range of emotions, frustrated with transitions and, of course, when we say “no”. 

While little ones are experiencing these big emotions, their brain is slowly developing on how to process them. You can divide the brain into two components at this age: the left side of the brain holds flight/fight/freeze, emotions and basic breathing and bodily functions. That is about it. These little ones cannot access the right side of their brain which holds empathy, body control, self-awareness and emotional regulation. Asking a child at this age to regulate their emotion is like asking them to fly to the moon – they cannot do it, especially during a tantrum. They cannot access the right side of the brain, they can’t hear your words. They are in fight, flight or freeze. 

Taming the Beast

There are several things caregivers can do to quickly address a tantrum AND keep healthy boundaries. 

  1. Regular sleep is key to minimize emotional dysregulation.
  2. Regular outdoor exercise increase endorphins, allows for deeper sleeps and helps regulate emotions.
  3. Connect with your child during a meltdown. Caregivers must stay calm as your child co-regulates their emotions with yours. If you are dysregulated, so are they.
  4.  Hold them, minimize words, rock them, let them know you love them, that they are safe, and that everything will be okay.
  5. Once the tears, kicking and screaming ends, do some deep breathing with them.
  6. Help them name their emotions. “Those were some big emotions, did it feel like a volcano exploding?”
  7. Then talk about boundaries once they are out of fight/flight/freeze and can HEAR you. “You cannot hit your brother, but you can roar like a bear if he takes your toys, then tell mom.”

We cannot stop meltdowns from happening BUT we can address them quickly, and minimize your child’s distress, while teaching them how to regulate emotions in a healthy way. 


Becky Morrison is a Nurse Practitioner based out of Calgary who has specialized in mental health for over a decade. She is finally, after years of infertility, a mother of two busy little boys, and doting fur mom of her gentle giant, Stella. She is, and always will be, a strong advocate for mental wellness at all ages.


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