The Science of a Meltdown: Why Do Young Kids Freak Out About Little Things?

Young girl at the supermarket last week: “Mummy I want some blueberries.” Blueberries are out of season and not available. Child cries and screams all the way around the supermarket until her poor mother can pay and get out of there.

My 4yo daughter this morning half way through eating her breakfast: “Mummy you forgot to put honey on my porridge!” Floods of tears.

Visiting family friends recently: 5yo Johnny says: “I don’t want the pink plate, I want the green one. Gemma took my green plate!“ Tears, screeching and then hits his sister Gemma.

It’s amazing how little things can so upset a young child, isn’t it?! How irrational can a child possibly be? They take it to new levels all the time!

So what’s happening – why do kids react like this?

The main reason is that young kids just don’t know how to handle all the big, new emotions they experience when things don’t go as they wish, or they feel powerless or scared. So they just want to “get rid” of the icky feelings - so that’s why they scream, cry, hit or throw things as way to externalise their emotions.

And if these overwhelming emotions totally flood their brain they can reach a tipping point where it turns into a tantrum or full-blown meltdown. At this point they – and we - lose all ability to calm them down. They are totally consumed by their emotional reaction both physically and mentally. Of course, this is usually when they are over-tired, over-stimulated, hungry, as well as emotional.

I think it’s very helpful to understand the neuroscience of a meltdown as it can help us parents be more empathetic to our child, as well as knowing how to reduce or avoid the upsets.

So today I’m going to give you the story of what goes on in your child’s brain when they get upset.

When teaching mindfulness, I talk about the function of a few key parts of the brain. It’s the same theory whether we’re talking about kids or adults!

The ancient part of the brain (the Reptilian brain which exists in all animals including reptiles) includes the brain stem and cerebellum and they look after our body basics like breathing, heart rate, balance and so on.  This all happens without us needing to ever think about it of course!

Then there’s the limbic system in the centre of the brain – this is where the fight-or-flight response comes from, as well as strong emotions like anger, hurt or fear. Our memories are also housed here. This part of the brain exists in mammals as well as humans.

When Johnny got upset and hit Gemma when she took the green plate, the amygdala in his limbic system was activated with feelings of anger, threat and powerlessness. In response to him feeling threatened, his body’s fight/flight response was activated in the reptilian brain (and so was his parents’, probably!). This means his heart rate increased and the blood rushed to his muscles (which means he's primed to physically lash out!).

In contrast, the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain controls our decision-making, reasoning and empathy and is a uniquely human part of the brain. It’s also where the skill of mindfulness occurs – our ability to be aware of our thoughts, emotions and reactions.

As children get to about 6 or 7 years old their prefrontal cortex starts to develop and they have more control over their emotions and their reactions.  They start to empathise more with others and this can override their self-centred desires.

Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their excellent book, The Whole Brain Child, describe these parts of the brain as the Upstairs Brain (prefrontal cortex or reasoning brain) and Downstairs Brain (limbic and reptilian systems, or fight/flight brain). Our job as a parent is to help kids build a staircase from the downstairs to the upstairs so they can regulate their emotions. A great metaphor!


How do we do this? When your child is emotionally triggered by something, logical reasoning won’t work. Instead try these steps:

1.     Use connection to calm him down so he can start to move from the downstairs reactive brain to the upstairs brain.  

>>Go down to his level, look him in the eyes, and touch him gently (if he’ll let you). 

2.     At the same time empathise with him – show that you understand things from your child’s point of view.  

>>“I know you love that green plate and it feels unfair that Gemma took it away.”

3.     Tell him the story of what’s going on: name the emotions and the triggers so he can learn to recognise the emotions and they aren’t so scary. This brings him from downstairs (fight/flight) brain to upstairs (reasoning) brain.

>> “I can see you’re feeling angry. You really wanted that green plate. It’s your favourite plate.”

4.     Only once he has calmed down enough to listen to you (from the upstairs brain), coach him on a better way to respond.  

>> “If you’re angry you can use words – not hitting – to say what you need. Hitting is never okay. What do you need right now? You want Gemma to give you the plate? How about you ask her calmly for the plate.”

Now in this situation some of you might be thinking, “But he hit his sister, we shouldn’t give him the plate. It’s rewarding his bad behaviour.” Well, I’d say that a young child is not logical enough to think this through as a reward – he just wants the plate right now and will have forgotten all about it in a few hours (or minutes!).  If you are clear that hitting is not acceptable and you coach him each time on a better way to communicate, that’s what he will learn over time.

It's also unlikely that every time your child cries or screams, you give him exactly what he wants. Sometimes he might get it, and other times you'll say no because it’s an unreasonable or impossible request (like eating chocolate cake before dinner!). 

What your child will actually learn from this approach of moving him from downstairs to upstairs brain is that:

(a) His parents understand and care about how he feels.

(b) His emotions are not so scary and they are okay so he doesn’t have to freak out about them (so he’ll be calmer over time).

(c) He is therefore not a bad person just for feeling scary emotions.

(d) There are better ways to deal with these big emotions, which his parents continue to teach him.

I think that’s a great long-term strategy for raising a kind, happy child!

To learn more on this, I've got a free Tantrum-Busting Action Plan for you to download! It tells you how you can avert most tantrums before they’ve even begun!

Until then, keep calm and carry on connecting!

xx Suzie