At some point in their early life your child will have a tantrum. And even if they aren’t there
yet, I am sure you have seen friend’s children, or stranger’s kids in the shopping centre flopping onto the floor, writhing, kicking and arching their backs (and maybe it is making you dread this particular stage of development).
What if I was to tell you, that you child might be having a tantrum as a way of self soothing and calming themself down?
So, what is a tantrum and why do they occur?
A tantrum is developmentally appropriate, but even though they are “normal” they can be
distressing and frustrating for us as parents. In part because it is so hard to watch our little ones in so much distress, and potentially in part because it can be mortifying if they happen in public.
Tantrums generally occur because our little people generally aren’t yet equipped to communicate their needs to us or don’t know the most appropriate ways to express their distress. Because they can’t share what is happening internally (i.e., the sensations of the feeling, or cannot make sense of what is happening) they can become frustrated or escalated and this can result in a need to release energy from their bodies…cue the shouting, stamping, writhing and arching. Generally, once the energy has been released or their need has been met the tantrum will dissipate. However, our children are also pretty crafty, and will quickly catch on to us “giving in” and may throw “faux” tantrums for attention or as a tool to get us to meet their “wants” (this is different than meeting their needs).
What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?
Another behaviour that we might see, which looks very much like a tantrum is a meltdown.
This is generally associated with sensory overwhelm. A sensory meltdown is quite different than a tantrum, it occurs when the body experiences a sensory overload (any individual or multiple senses) and this results in a fight, flight freeze response. The person experiencing the overwhelm generally cannot de-escalate or calm down until the sensory needs have been me, either with presence or removal of sensory stimulus (i.e., if a sound has been impacting on them, they are removed from the area so they can no longer hear it, or the sound stops). Only at this point can they start to calm and regulate themselves.
The difference between a sensory meltdown and tantrum is that a tantrum is usually about getting some kind of need met, they have a purpose for our children, whereas a meltdown is a response to something triggering in their environment, or a sensory need that isn’t
being met and is generally something that happens outside of your child’s control.
So how do senses help with self-soothing?
We have six senses, but people often know about five only; smell, touch, taste, hearing and
sight. The little known sixth sense is proprioception. Proprioception is all about how our body
“senses” itself and where it exists in comparison to the world around us (i.e., bodily awareness).
This sense tells us important things about how close things are to us, and how much energy we need to exert to influence those things around us (i.e., how hard to throw the ball to get it through the hoop, how hard to hug someone depending on their size/shape).
Proprioception is where the flinging, writhing, kicking, punching, arching (etc) comes in. If a
child’s proprioceptive awareness is low, they will use other senses or external things to try and meet this sensory need. This can appear as being inattentive, irritable or difficult to settle. What this means is that when proprioception is poor, we rely on the other senses like vision and touch to try and figure out “where our bodies are” in the world around us (bodily awareness) and this is where we see children exhibit something called “heavy work” in order to try and organise the
proprioceptive sense and help them understand the orientation of their body.
Ok what is heavy work?
Heavy work engages our muscles through pushing and pulling, as this is where proprioceptor
receptors exist within the body. When we flex our muscles and move our joints our body sends
messages to the brain that remind it where it exists within the world. When this sensory need is met, it helps children to feel safe, because they can make sense and order of their world again and the nervous system is calmed. So, for some children who are experiencing a meltdown, or even a tantrum we can see kicking, hitting, arching, laying on the floor, throwing things etc because their bodies are attempting to seek a sense of “organisation and safety” to help them calm down and feel soothed.
I'm not saying that using their bodies in this way is always appropriate, but it is an intuitive way that our children try to calm themselves.
So, what are some safe ways to incorporate heavy work?
Learn about progressive muscle relaxation. You can check on YouTube or search for the term
online. It is essentially laying or sitting comfortably and isolating and squeezing for a few
seconds (gently, not to cause pain or discomfort) different muscle groups and then releasing
Start from the head and work down the body from your head to your toes, raise your eye brows, wrinkle your nose, smile, clench your jaw, pull your shoulders up to your ears etc. Find weighted comfort items. These are objects that have added weights placed in them in order to press or “hold” the body. You can purchase weighted blankets or teddies, jackets, etc. If you can’t afford or don’t wish to but specific weighted items you can help your child by using layering (i.e., multiple blankets, several pairs of socks on at once etc).
Pushing a wheelbarrow, trolley or something on wheels that has weight or can be weighed down
Kicking and bouncing a ball
Playing with beanbags (small handheld ones) or sitting in a beanbag
Swimming or even having a shower and letting the water fall on them
Pinching pegs between fingers
Swinging on a swing, in particular hammock type swings work well as they hold the body and give added sensory input
Get them to help with some chores like vacuuming, sweeping, pulling weeds, carrying
groceries or helping bring the washing in off the line.
Although tantrums and meltdowns can be overwhelming (for child and us too!) they can actually
be serving a purpose. In saying that we need to be careful about how our children direct their need for proprioceptive input, so kicking a ball is fine, but kicking another person, or certain objects might not be ok. If your child is someone who seeks proprioception it can be helpful to practice strategies above so that they have a tool-chest full of strategies to help them make good choices when they need to self-soothe and calm down.
Lin, C., Min, Y., Chou, L., & Lin, C. (2012). Effectiveness of sensory processing strategies on activity level in inclusive preschool classrooms. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 8. 475-481.
Pfieffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., & Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorder: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65 (1). 76-85.
Stefan, K., Kunesch, E., Cohen, L. G., Benecke, R., & Classen. (2000). Induction of plasticity in the human motor cortex by paired associative stimulation. Brain, 123 (3). 572 – 584.