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little child is cryingParents and teachers aren’t surprised when toddlers burst into tears because they are frustrated or disappointed. Temper tantrums are common place among young children who haven’t learned to use words to express their feelings. Most children are easily redirected, and by school-age know how to keep their feelings in check.

Not true for children who continue to have meltdowns well beyond early childhood. The depth of their rage is frightening to observe. It seems to come from nowhere, and is fairly impossible to contain. Now a closer look at the relationship between language and behavior can help explain it.

Memories of early childhood are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain. Unlike memories of later times in life, they are encoded nonverbally. There are no words to label or explain them. They cannot be discussed or verbally interpreted. When they include trauma or other serious adversity, survivors are “haunted by an unnarrated past” (Bloom & Farragher, 2011).

The condition is called alexithymia. It explains a lot about the behavior of explosive children. Many have early trauma histories. Although they can’t talk about their experiences, the memories remain. Their speechless terror is expressed through repeated cycles of relentless reenactment.

Interrupting children’s patterns of destructive repetition requires caregivers to maintain a level of emotional detachment that is sometimes difficult to achieve. Remaining detached helps adults control their own emotions and behavior while they attend to the needs of the children in their care. Otherwise they run the risk of mirroring the explosive behaviors instead of modeling emotional regulation and control.

For more information on the relationship between language and behavior check out:

Bloom, Sandra & Brian Farragher (2011). Destroying sanctuary: The crisis in human service delivery systems. New York, NY: Oxford University Press