Calming a Tantrum with Neuroscience: A Storytelling approach

“Armed with this knowledge, we can act more empathically, compassionately, and confidently in our everyday interactions with our children, all while promoting healthy brain development and emotional intelligence.”

Have you heard of the left brain and right brain? Do you remember which is which?

Is it still scientifically supported? YES!

Is it relevant to you and your child’s everyday interactions? YES, again!

Do you want to know how a little left and right brain knowledge can give you a strategy to work through a tantrum? Yes? Okay! Keep reading!

There is this amazing body of knowledge in neuroscience that gives parents a better perspective into a child’s behavior. Armed with this knowledge, we can act more empathically, compassionately, and confidently in our everyday interactions with our children, all while promoting healthy brain development and emotional intelligence.  Sound good? Yeah, I thought so too. Some of this practical knowledge is presented in the book The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. These days, I’ve been re-reading it to help me stay more aware and mindful of my child’s current stage of development and how my actions can help us grow and live together more respectfully. For me, respectful, gentle parenting is so important and so valuable for the overall well-being of our children and future generations. So, in light of that, I want to share with you some wonderful and practical insights that I love and use.

The topic of focus here is the Left and Right Hemispheres of the brain and how knowing a little about them can help guide our ability to connect and solve problems with our children. I’ll jump right into a simple lesson in neuroscience (not a neuroscientist here, so you’ll get my simplified interpretation), then I’ll give you a practical strategy to use in times when your child is flooded with emotion (a.k.a. a tantrum).

The Left Brain and Right Brain

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Let’s review: our brain has two hemispheres, or halves (we’ll call them the left and right brain for simplicity), that are separate entities which are connected down the middle. Each hemisphere has its own job, or “power”, if you will. Our left brain processes information logically and literally and its powers are logic and language (among other things). The right brain processes information in images emotions and its powers are emotions and connecting with our body, as well as personal memory (the memories of our own stories).

In order for our left and right brains to bring their separate powers together and be our “super power”, our left and right brains need to be integrated; meaning they need strong neural connections that develop from repeated use of both right and left working together. This prevents us from being too literal, logical and unemotional (over-powered by the left brain) or from being carried away at the strength of our emotions, such as fear or anger, and instinctual reactions (over-powered by the right brain). I think we can all agree that acting and interacting with only logic or only emotion would be disastrous. Hence, the importance of integration between the left brain and right brain.

The Left Brain and Right Brain in Children

Okay, now, you ask…what about our children? Children, up until about 3 years old, are dominated by their right brain’s powers of emotion and connection to the body and its instinctual reactions (think crying for survival needs of hunger, potty needs, warmth, etc). Aha! That kind of explains the big emotional outbursts! Their brains are essentially hard-wired to rely on right brain powers and struggle to bring in the less developed left brain powers, i.e., the right and left are dis-integrated, especially during times of strong emotion.

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An example: Margot, 4, and Chandler, 2, are happily engaging in a game of Mama, Papa, and Baby with Margot’s favorite baby doll. Margot (playing Mama) gently lays the baby doll into the pretend crib then turns away to complete another pretend task. Chandler (playing Papa) approaches the “sleeping” baby and innocently picks it up to play with it when Margot turns around and screams with anger that Chandler woke the Baby and is holding her baby doll! Margot, in a fit of anger, snatches the baby doll from Chandler, which then incites a torrent of fearful cries from Chandler. Both children are now overcome by a flood of emotions, they are overpowered by the right brain.

How do we get a child to stop the emotional flood of crying or anger? Stop the tantrum? We need to be able to get in touch with a child’s logic, language and reasoning to solve these daily conundrums. To understand and solve the problem that led up to their growing flood of emotion, the child needs to combine their left brain’s logical thinking and language powers with the right brain’s empathetic emotion and memory powers: Dum Dum Dummm, A SUPER POWER is born! So the question is, how can we help our children access the left brain powers when they are overpowered by their right brain emotion? In other words, how can we help Margot integrate her left and right brain so that the left brain is accessible in times of intense emotion? (Which would help her respond more calmly and with a willingness to share with Chandler.) Well, luckily, there are several practical solutions offered in The Whole Brain Child, one of which I will share here and is used almost daily in our home! It’s actually a combination of the first two strategies given in the book.

A Strategy for Calming an Emotional Flood (a.k.a Tantrum)

Step One: Connect with the child on an emotional, right brain level with a story of the event that initiated the emotional flood and empathy.

Step Two: Gently bring in the left brain by assigning a name to the emotion(s) the child is experiencing.

Step Three: Once calm and connected, solve the problem at hand

Let’s return to Margot and Chandler’s problem. What can you do?

You have two options:

Option 1: Using logic and law, you begin to explain to Margot that Chandler didn’t know that he wasn’t supposed to move the doll and follow that up with a lesson on sharing.

Option 2: Acknowledge the real emotional turmoil initiated by this difficult situation in sharing and cooperation and wait for calm.

Which do you think will better teach a child the appropriate behavior?

Side note: I am a big proponent of empathizing with and listening to a child’s (or anyone’s, for that matter) emotional release and not telling them to stop crying or distracting them. The strategy laid out here respectfully acknowledges the emotions, while still providing a way to calm the emotions and come to a solution. When I notice a higher intensity of emotions, I generally take a moment to comfort (big hugs) and empathize with my child before beginning this process.

Well, option 1 would probably be carried out while Margot and Chandler continue to scream and cry and, most likely, you are yelling so they can hear you. While option 2 allows for some connection and cool down time. Here’s what I suggest:

First, connect with the children emotionally by telling the story of what happened, connect physically with a hug or hand on their back, and name the emotion they may be feeling as you tell the story. A tender physical connection (empathy) and story speak to the right brain’s emotion, body language, and memory. You become connected with your child, right brain to right brain, which is appropriate in this moment when the right brain is in charge and the left brain is dis-connected. The naming of emotions begins to call on the left brain to use words to help organize the right brain’s emotional flood and help describe the problem. Essentially, you are helping engage the left brain to control the right brain emotional flood. With enough practice and repetition, a solid neural integration will begin to form that will make it easier for the left and right brain to remain integrated in future moments of intense emotion.

For example, you can say:

“Margot, you and Chandler were playing Mama and Papa with the baby doll. Margot laid the baby down to sleep in the crib and then Chandler came and picked up the sleeping baby. I see that you (Margot) are angry that Chandler took the baby doll. You worked very hard trying to get the baby to sleep [empathy]. When Chandler took the baby, Margot got angry and snatched the baby from Chandler’s hands. Chandler felt upset and scared when that happened. Snatching can hurt.”

In most cases, my children will begin to settle down and listen as I tell the story and talk about how they may be feeling. Oftentimes, my preschooler will begin adding to the story of what happened (and even my toddler has helped with this). It is natural for people, large or small, to want to understand what happened during a stressful event and understand why we become overcome with emotion. This process of retelling the story helps the left brain organize and release intense emotions that are connected with the memory of that event.

As you continue to give words to their experience, your child can begin to engage with the original problem using the left brain. Once the tears or strong emotions have subdued and you can see that your child is listening to you, you can then start to address the problem at hand, which would be the event that provoked the emotional flood. In our example, it would be the disruption of Margot’s play and the snatching of the toy from Chandler.

As in the example, I’ve found that this method even works when I’m trying to solve a problem between two upset siblings. In this case, I generally hold my youngest (1+ years), as she is still at an age and stage of needing more of a physical and immediate response, and I tell the story using non-judgmental language by simply stating what happened in a factual manner. This story catches the attention of both children and, thankfully, most of the time, my elder child realizes the problem and will initiate reconciliation with her sister.

This method has been working pretty well for us in many situations. However, there are times when it simply is beyond a child’s capability to connect and problem solve.

Situations when it doesn’t work completely (but you can still try):

  • When the child is hungry

  • When the child is very tired

  • When the caregiver is overwhelmed, not calm, or unable to empathize (yeah, we all have our moments of difficulty, child and parent alike!)

Situations when it has worked well:

  • When someone gets hurt (I often repeat the story several times)

  •  When someone gets scared (again, the more repetition, the better understanding the child can have and *include how the child came to safety in the end*) 

  • When there is a conflict between siblings. In this case, first physically separate the children to prevent injuries, if necessary, and then begin the story so both can hear.




Now you know a little more about the Left brain and Right brain and how their development and integration affects your child’s actions…but there’s more! There is also a vertical integration between the upper and lower areas of the brain (as opposed to horizontal integration of left and right) that is necessary. Understanding a bit more about these areas of the brain will give even more insight into what a tantrum is. And when we know what we are dealing with in a tantrum, we can better relate to our child and help them integrate their brains for long-term health and problem-solving abilities. We’ll talk about that soon!

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