The Tantrum Cycle (and How to Get Out of It)
The Stress Cycle
When something upsetting happens (even if it seems minor to an adult), it makes a child feel angry, scared, sad, or a gigantic combination of these feelings. So their nervous system activates the stress cycle, causing their body to flood with stress hormones and making it hard for them to calm down. Without help, the child becomes more and more upset, ultimately leading to a full-fledged meltdown.
Through the lens of nurture science, a child who’s having regular meltdowns isn’t going through some inevitable phase of “acting out”— they’re stuck in a loop of stress cycles. Living at constantly high levels of stress is scary, so their fuse gets shorter as the world starts to feel more overwhelming. That lowers their baseline resilience, which makes it more likely that the littlest thing will set them off.
This cycle can become a very stressful experience for parents, too, because it feels as though you’re living in a minefield. Our nervous systems are sensitive to each other, so being around someone who is dysregulated can easily dysregulate us! Then we, too, get stuck in a stress cycle, and nobody feels better.
A tantrum is the body’s nervous system trying to communicate that it is out of control—that it’s looking for help syncing up and calming down. When a child is in a state of dysregulation (a tantrum), they have to get this need met. This does not mean you have to buy your child the toy they’re throwing a fit over not getting at the store! It means they have an underlying need for connection and regulation. And we can give them that.
Feeling Better Together
The interesting thing is, we’ve all experienced this to be true in our adult lives: you have a terrible day and come home from work stressed and exhausted. You throw some leftovers in the microwave. The bowl comes out hotter than expected and you drop it, shattering your dinner (and any calm you had left). After holding it together all day, the dropped bowl is the thing that finally breaks you. It’s total-body dysregulation: you cry, get mad, or yell, and your brain short circuits as you lose control.
That’s a tantrum. That’s what your child is experiencing. A hug from your partner probably makes you feel better about the bowl, but a hug before you’d put dinner together—as soon as you walked in the door—might have saved you from the tears and fury of being pushed past your limit.
Yet what are we often told to do in the face of a tantrum? Ignore the child or put them in time-out. The trouble is, they can’t regulate themselves—if they could, they wouldn’t be having a tantrum! When we isolate or punish them, we feed the stress cycle. Behavior doesn’t improve (and sometimes gets worse).
Through a Nurture Science lens, tantrums are simply signals of a body under too much stress (or a body that’s been trying to handle stress alone for too long). Meltdowns alert us to our child’s (and sometimes our own) need for more connection, more feelings of calm.
The Relief Cycle
Our bodies are always looking for ways to get regulated, and their favorite way is syncing up with another person. This is called co-regulation.Co-regulation allows us to calm down, function optimally, and increase our resilience.
To co-regulate, we connect emotionally: expressing our emotions together while engaging our five senses. The body’s nervous system uses senses and emotions to understand what’s happening to us, so by co-regulating, we speak its own language to help it feel calm. But how does this stop, and even prevent, tantrums?
Co-regulation provides both immediate and long-term comfort by stopping the stress cycle and turning on the relief cycle. Counter to the stress cycle, when two people co-regulate, nurturing hormones get released, stress hormones stop pouring out, and their two nervous systems calm down together. When we meet a child’s need for connection, we engage in this positive cycle.
When the relief cycle is repeated over and over again, a child’s stress levels get lower and lower. That regular feeling of calm raises their resilience baseline, which allows them to handle minor, and sometimes even moderate stressors, without falling apart—partly because they aren’t pumped full of stress hormones, and partly because they know that no matter what happens, they can connect with you and feel better.
So the next time your child loses it because you said no to an ice cream cone, try connecting with them. Sit down so you’re face to face and look them in the eye, or scoop them up in your arms and snuggle them while you listen to them express their big feelings. Validate their emotions, while maintaining the boundary you’ve set. Try saying, “I hear you. You’re really sad that we’re not getting ice cream right now. It can be hard when we feel disappointed. I feel disappointed too sometimes. I love you very much.” Parents can say how they’re feeling too, if the tantrum is making them upset or frustrated (in fact, if you’re sharing a genuine emotion, it often stops the tantrum in its tracks)!
Remember, the need isn’t ice cream; the need is connection. This connection helps you, too. The oxytocin your body releases when co-regulating helps your body recover from dysregulation. Bringing this practice into everyday interactions with our kids—like playtime, mealtime, storytime, and bedtime—gives us and our kids a buffer against stress. This frequent connection, even in the little moments, helps our bodies feel better, our brains think clearer, promotes emotion and behavior regulation, and builds a happier family.
Co-regulation works best when it’s the stuff the car runs on, rather than just the emergency brake. It’s really hard to remember what to do in moments of stress if you aren’t in the habit of doing it in moments of calm. If you’re in the habit of connecting with your little one in this way all the time, you’ll have the instinct to do it when you sense a tantrum brewing. And their bodies will begin to learn on an instinctive level that when upsetting things happen, they can stay calm because when they connect, their needs will be met. That’s why it’s so important to co-regulate every day, and not just in moments of crisis—it may prevent the next tantrum from happening at all.