Have you ever wondered why infants throw crying fits or why they have temper tantrums? In my opinion, the answer to this question is simple if you look at it through a stress management lens.
A big part of understanding temper tantrums revolves around the human stress response system and how neural pathways are built in the brain. Over time, the human brain builds neural pathways in response to repetitive behaviors and once these behaviors are ingrained, the brain no longer wonders if a given behavior is a threat to survival or not.
When this repetitive behavior occurs, it does not activate a stress response in the body because the behavior is interpreted by the brain as normal and necessary for survival. It is no longer a stressful experience.
Of course, this is a good thing when the behaviors are positive, but not such a good thing when the behaviors are negative. Consider temper tantrums, for example.
Negative Parenting Tactics Produce the Wrong Outcome
Most parents would agree children throw temper tantrums to be bad or to get attention, but there is far more to it that just that and understanding the root cause of a temper tantrum can greatly help parents eliminate this annoying parenting challenge. At the very least, it would prevent the need for parents to employ negative tactics to stop the behavior.
I say negative tactics because it’s no secret the most common way to handle annoying behaviors from children is through punishment or discipline causing children to learn through negative association that certain behaviors lead to pain and suffering, which causes a new neural pathway of avoidance to be built. However, this is far from the best way to solve the problem.
Understanding the Human Stress Response Underneath Temper Tantrums
To find a better solution, we must take a moment to consider what’s going on inside the child’s brain as far as stress hormones are concerned when a temper tantrum or crying fit happens because the underlying issue is far more complex than just a simple cry for attention.
If we examine the issue in depth, we can see most children don’t start this attention-seeking behavior with full on screaming temper tantrums; rather, they begin the behavior with light crying or even whimpering. It’s like the child is conducting a test, and the level and type of response of the parent to that test determines if the child’s behavior begins to escalate from light crying to a full-scale temper tantrum or not. It also determines if a new neural pathway needs to be built.
When a child with a developing brain cries out for attention, it’s not just because of boredom or loneliness. That cry for attention most likely comes from fear of social isolation and exclusion (assuming all basic physiological needs have already been addressed).
All human beings have a limbic area in the brain, often called the mammal brain, located in the center area of the brain and this part of the brain is not controlled by rational thought, it’s controlled by two main emotions, pleasure and pain.
Social Exclusion Meant Death in the Past
Historically, being left out of a group meant you would likely be eaten by a predator very soon or perish in the extreme weather conditions (pain), so human beings, and all animals, evolved to not be left alone for too long. Being in a group, no matter how small, meant an increased chance of survival (pleasure).
A huge debate has persisted over the years about how best to solve the problem of a child crying and whether a parent needs to rush in to pick up the child, entertain the child or just keep the child company. In other words, do parents need to stop what their doing to pass the child’s social exclusion test?
The answer is an unequivocal no! Children, even young children, do not need to be coddled and entertained all the time. Rather, the child just needs to be quickly informed (reassured) that a member of the protective social group (mom or dad) is nearby. This is the neural pathway that must be built.
Media Surrogates Fall Short
I think we parents know instinctively that children have this need, but over the years, we have reached out for some unhelpful solutions to this instinctual problem experienced by our children and we have probably lived to regret our actions even if we didn’t know what was causing the problem.
For example, since the invention of radio and television, parents have begun to use media surrogates as a kind of white noise to keep children company or to keep them happy, thinking the child just feels lonely or thinking the child hates it when the room is too quiet. These parents may believe having sound in the room will be adequate to calm and comfort the child.
I don’t agree with this theory. I don’t believe a media surrogate will get the job done unless it’s always the exact same few voices such as Barney or Bert and Ernie. By always playing the exact same voices in the background, the child may come to believe that Barney or Bert and Ernie are part of the social group set up to ensure the child’s survival; it’s kind of like fooling the child; however, this solution would be a tough pill for any sane adult to swallow.
No Need To Stop What You’re Doing
When a child cries out (conducts the social exclusion test), the problem is not that the room is too quiet and the problem is not that the child feels lonely and needs companionship or entertainment, the real problem is that the child is being drowned with the stress hormone called Cortisol as the brain scans for indicators that the child is not alone. The brain is seeking proof that the child is a still part of a safe social group and therefore will be more likely to survive.
If indicators of social inclusion are not available or if they are not adequate, the child will start to feel bad, and over time a child, who routinely experiences this sensation, will build a new neural pathway based on this fear and the level and intensity of the crying out will escalate (the tests will get stronger and longer) and the temper tantrum behavior challenge will be born in that child.
Time to Turn Off the Cortisol Tap
A far better idea is for the consistent reassuring voice of the parent (mom or dad) or other key adult to always be nearby. Rather than playing music or television, try singing or reading out loud while your child is sleeping or playing. That way if the nasty Cortisol hormone inside your child’s body decides to rear its ugly head and conduct a test, your child will be able to hear your voice and know he or she is not alone. Then the Cortisol tap will get turned off and the body will return to normal, also called homeostasis.
However, if mom or dad or some other key adult fails the test (is not nearby), that Cortisol tap will stay on for 2-3 hours until the body reaches the needed blood saturation level of Cortisol and turns off on its own. The whole time the Cortisol tap is pumping away, the child will feel bad (just kind of yucky all over) and this is probably the cause of all the unexplained cases of Colic.
Once that neural pathway is built, it would take a constant 6-week effort to undue the pathway and replace it with a better one. I feel it’s far better to prevent the negative pathways from being built in the first place and doing so does not require mom and dad to stop what they are doing to come and entertain the child.
Make Sure It’s Not a Physiological Problem
Of course, as I mentioned above, this assumes the problem is fear of social exclusion and not related to some physiological discomfort, such as toileting issues, hunger, thirst, stomach pain (gas), other pain, illness or an environmental issue such as room temperature being too hot or too cold.
Assuming these challenges, located at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, are addressed, then we parents must move up to Level 2 on the Hierarchy of Needs and recognize that the main issue is safety and security where the soft soothing sound of mom or dad’s voice can go a very long way to solving this problem.
Lots of Solutions Available
And there are many ways to add the sound of your voice to the scene. If you happen to be a home-based business person, even talking on the phone can solve the problem. It’s even possible to use recording devices to help out from time to time, but these have to be used carefully, but the human brain, even a baby’s brain, is not stupid and if a recording device is overused or used incorrectly, it would not take long for the brain to figure out that it’s a phony surrogate and then it’s Cortisol city all over again.
Of course, social media activities conducted in silence would have a reverse effect unless you sing while you type or speak out loud as you are typing. The sound of your voice doesn’t have to be continuous, but it does need to be regular, predictable and responsive.
Turn Up Your Own Volume… Not Just White Noise
If you do this, that initial crying out behavior where the child is just checking to make sure he or she is not alone will have no reason to escalate into full on terrified temper tantrums and no negative neural pathway will be built.
So, if you want to solve the problem of a child crying or having temper tantrums, it’s time to turn up the volume… your own volume that is, and not the world of white noise.
Your child won’t care if you are singing, reciting poetry or even telling yourself silly jokes, just as long as the calm, reassuring sound of YOUR voice or some other well-recognized, consistent voice is nearby and audible on command when the limbic brain decides to conduct a test.
What To Do Next
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