Distress Tantrum versus Little Nero Tantrum

Contrary to popular belief, a child’s tantrums are not always about a need to control a parent. “Many tantrums are the result of genuine emotional pain, which should be taken seriously: the pain of impotence, deep frustration, loss, disappointment, and feeling misunderstood. Only some tantrums are primarily motivated by a wish to have control over a parent” (Sunderland 120).

According to Sunderland, children display two types of tantrums, each of which requires very different handling responses. Sunderland identifies the two types of tantrums as a “distress tantrum” and the “little nero tantrum”. It is important to be able to identify the two types of tantrums because “with little Nero tantrums you need to move away from the child, and with distress tantrums you need to move towards the child with comfort and solace” (Sunderland 121).

In a distress tantrum, the alarm systems in a child’s lower brain are activated sending the child into a hyperaroused state with waves of stress hormones coursing through his body. When distressed, the child is unable to talk or listen and he needs sensitive handling from a caring parent who can meet his intense feelings of loss, frustration, or acute disappointment with sympathy and understanding. “Repeatedly getting angry with a child’s genuine distress can mean that the child never develops inhibitory mechanisms in his higher brain” (Sunderland 123).

A child experiencing a distress tantrum is calling for help from a parent to help her handle the strong emotions that she is unable to deal with.

How do you handle a child who is experiencing a distress tantrum?

A parent’s role is to provide a sense of safety, comfort and reassurance. Sunderland offers the following techniques to help calm a child:

  • use simple calm actions or provide a simple choice – “for example if your child is upset about getting dressed, ask him whether he wants to wear his blue or brown trousers”
  • use distraction – it activates the seeking system in the lower brain which can naturally “override the brain’s rage or distress systems. It also triggers a high level of dopamine” which is a chemical messenger in the brain that helps “reduce stress and triggers interest and motivation
  • hold your child tenderly – it is important that you feel calm and in control because your child needs to be near a calm person to help bring her “overaroused body and brain systems back into balance” (Sunderland 125)
  • some children may feel safe and contained just by having a calm adult sit by them and talking gently
  • avoid using “time out” – just as “you wouldn’t walk away from your best friend… if she is writhing and sobbing on the floor, so this is certainly not appropriate for children, who have far fewer emotional resources than adults”
  • avoid putting a child in a room on her own – in such a case, a child who is put into a room alone may stop crying but research has shown that there is more cause for concern from this reaction because the child continues to cry internatlly. “Vocal crying is a request for help, silent, internal crying is a sign that the child has lost faith that help will come. In some people, this tragic loss of faith can stay for life”
  • remember that a child’s distress is geniune – “a two year old who is screaming because his sibling has snatched a toy car is not just making a fuss. Research shows that a sense of loss activates the pain centers in the brain, causing an agonising opioid withdrawal. Because small children have been in the world for only a few years, they don’t have a clear perspective on life. As adults we have a backdrop of events and experiences that tell us that the loss of a toy car is a minor disappointment. But for a small child this loss can mean everything” (Sunderland 126).

How do you distinguish a distress tantrum from a little nero tantrum?

“When a child has a distress tantrum, you can see real anguish in his face” (Sunderland 123). Sunderland provides a couple of examples, such as “2-year-old Ben who is writhing on the shop floor because he had set his heart on shoes that did not fit” (123) and James who is disappointed by the fact that his “family has run out of his favourite breakfast cereal”. Neither child is being naughty, they are both extremely disappointed. The distress tantrum is a means of discharging the bodily arousal caused by frustration. What they require is a compassionate response from an understanding parent (122).

“During a distress tantrum, your child can’t think or speak rationally because his upper brain functions are hijacked by primitive emotional systems in his lower brain” (Sunderland 128).

“The little Nero tantrum is very different from a distress tantrum in that it is about the desire to control and manipulate. A child having a little Nero tantrum doesn’t experience or show the anguish, desperation, and panic that characterises the distress tantrum, and he doesn’t have stress chemicals flooding his brain and body.”

With a little Nero tantrum, a child is using “his frontal lobes… to produce behaviour that is calculated and deliberate” (Sunderland 128).

With a little Nero tantrum, “there is usually an absence of tears and the child is able to articulate her demands, and to argue when you say “no”. A child uses this type of tantrum because she has learned that it will get her what she wants. The more you reward this type of tantrum and with attention… the more she will continue to adopt this behaviour” which can lead to a her becoming a bully later on in life (Sunderland 129).

For handling the little Nero tantrum, Sunderland offers the following techniques:

  • don’t give your child an audience – if you are sure it is not a distress tantrum, walk out the room and ignore your child’s little Nero tantrum. Your child will stop this behaviour because it is no fun when no-one is watching.
  • don’t try to reason, argue with, or persuade – attention and words reward this behaviour.
  • don’t “kiss it better” – because this sends the following message to your child: “if you go into rage, I will give you lots of love.”
  • don’t negotiate – negotiation only rewards angry, controlling behaviour. A child who has discovered that rage controls his parents will continue to use this tactic later in life. Trying to use a “time out” on your child at 16 who is still hitting you and kicking doors is obviously not going to work.
  • give clear, firm “nos”
  • deal firmly with your child’s commands – “for example, if your child is shouting and screaming for a biscuit, try saying: ‘I’m really happy to talk with you about what you would like when your voice is as quiet as mine.’ Then get on with what you are doing until your child is calmer and says ‘please’.
  • give information about social charm – this usually works with an older child because it needs the higher brain to be more developed. An example would be to say, “If you order people to do something, they won’t want to help you. So if you want something, can you think of a way of asking that will unlock my kind feelings? If you need help with that, let me know.”
  • use humour and play when appropriate – for instance you can use mirroring, like saying, “Can of peas – get me that biscuit now! Or, I know, let’s boss the toothbrush around… come here toothbrush!” This serves to upstage your little Nero and show that you don’t take bullying seriously.
  • time out should be used as a last resort – for instance, when your child is hurting someone else by using physical violence (Sunderland 130-131)

Reference:

Sunderland, Margot. The Science of Parenting. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2006.

About the author

Shen-Li Shen-Li is a stay-home mum to two boys who have been the inspiration for her interest in early childhood development and early child education. She searches for the balance in child development methods and the educational philosophies that will enable the nurture of happy, confident and successful children. She shares her views and findings at Figur8.


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  1. [...] Gavin halted his tantrum instantaneously. It hit me like a tonne of bricks that this was not a distress tantrum but what I had witnessed was in fact a “little Nero” tantrum. My toddler had mastered [...]

  2. [...] the truth to what Margot Sunderland writes in The Science of Parenting about how children in distress tantrums lose their words and their ability to communicate. During such times, no matter how I ask him what [...]

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