Calm out of control tantrums with the “cross-body pat”

The Scream: Alone by Ashrel

From Sarah:

Ever had your kid get so worked up that they're unable to calm themselves down? Try patting alternating sides of their body – left and right, not front and back.  

Something about forcing brain responses across hemispheres breaks up the limbic system storm they're experiencing and gives the prefrontal cortex a chance to step back in.  

I originally read this as a tip for helping autistic kids, but it's worked really well on my toddler, too!

I wish I had heard Sarah's hack seven years ago!  My son used to experience these sorts of tantrums and it took us a long time to understand the notion of a "limbic system storm."

Fact is, the word "tantrum" is misleading, because it brings up images of a foot-stamping Veruca Salt when she doesn't get her way. But we're talking about when something triggers a kid's fight-or-flight response. At these times, there literally is no thinking, just reaction, and it's intense. It's not about manipulation or whining; on a brain level it's about survival (even if the trigger was something we might think of as trivial).

Therefore, the way out is not through reasoning, but in helping the storm subside. Once the floodwaters recede, thinking and reasoning can resume.

Of course, not all tantrums are limbic system storms. Some are good, old fashioned Veruca Salt, and it can be hard to tell the difference. But understanding our son's outbursts this way revolutionized how we responded and, I believe, helped him get past this developmental phase more quickly.

Two books that helped us at the time (geared toward school-age kids):

At Amazon: The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children (affiliate link)The Explosive Child

This book framed extreme behavioral problems as developmental delays. Of course this isn't the case for every behavior problem, but it made a huge difference in the way we worked with our son. Very practical how-to.

At Amazon: What to Do When Your Temper Flares: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Problems With Anger (What to Do Guides for Kids) (affiliate link)What To Do When Your Temper Flares

I'm a big proponent of all of Dawn Huebner's "What To Do" guides for kids. They take a cognitive-behavioral approach to problem behaviors and turn it into a fun to read, empowering workbook that doesn't talk down to kids. No easy fixes, just clear, calming language and step-by-step actions kids take themselves.

This book helps kids step back and look at what's driving their tempers. Many kids are frightened by their own flare-ups, and this gives them tools to better understand what's going on. Fabulous resource.

Anyone else have experience with kids' "brain flood" rages and tantrums? What worked for you, in the moment and in the long-term?

"The Scream: Alone" image credit: Ashrel for DeviantArt


  1. says

    Thanks for the tip – I’m definitely going to try the patting approach. We generally use the distraction approach (In fact, I wonder if the patting is also a form of distraction?). My tot is still young so I could see distraction not working eventually.

  2. Meghan says

    Another great book along the same lines is The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson. I saw Dr. Bryson speak at a conference and it was life changing for me both as a child therapist and as a mom!

  3. Sri says

    A tip a neuroscience geek mom & therapist taught me is to ave them blow out your 5 fingers like birthday candles. They have to really blow, which means they have to breathe deeply, and the oxygen will also help the limbic system. They can also blow cotton balls or tissue across a table – resetting the breath and distracting with a game.

  4. says

    I am going to try this the next time one of these happens with our son. His reactions sometimes seem so outside what even what an “appropriate” tantrum response would “need” to be. Up to this point, the only thing that has worked is to disengage from him and have him cool down on his own. Afterwards he’s usually much easier to deal with on an non-emotional level.


  5. BC says

    This trick didn’t work for us – it made her more mad, which was surprisingly possible. I’ll try the candle blowing technique but how does anyone get the child’s focus for the explanation of that???

    We call this the Bruce Banner problem. Hulk Mad, Hulk Smash.