The Science of Toddler Temper Tantrums

Anyone who has ever spent time with a toddler knows that temper tantrums can be overwhelming — for child and adult alike. The good news: Tantrums are a normal part of child development. One study that surveyed 1,500 parents found that nearly 84 percent of their preschool kids had thrown a tantrum in the past month. The not-so-good news: Tantrums can begin as early as 15 months, and may last until age 5, so it can feel like a long stretch. Still, the frequency of these freak-outs should decrease as kids emerge from those “terrible twos,” and there are plenty of strategies to stop meltdowns in their tracks, and maybe even prevent them.

One important thing to keep in mind: Tantrums are not a result of kids wanting to act up. “We need to remember what is happening in the brain,” Rebecca Parlakian, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting development of babies and toddlers, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The frontal lobe is what coordinates the ability to manage emotions, show self-control, and defer a desire, but that part of the brain is still developing in a toddler.” At the same time, kids around the age of 2 are just beginning to understand that they are separate individuals with their own wants, needs, and likes, Parlakian says. “So their brains are exploding with the desire to do things for themselves and be independent, but they lack the capacity to manage those strong desires when they’re in an environment where doing whatever they want isn’t an option.”

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This underdeveloped frontal lobe also means that toddlers have little impulse control, adds Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “If they feel something, they act on it,” Klein tells Yahoo Parenting. “So if they have something in their hand and they’re mad, they throw it. They don’t have the ability to stop themselves. The science here is that the brain is getting flooded by this emotion, and any capability to handle it goes away.”

That can be hard for parents to handle, especially when tantrums can feel personal and — to an adult brain — unreasonable. “The challenge for parents is to stand separate and see the tantrum for what it is — the child has lost the capacity to manage their emotions,” Parlakian says. “When we respond with intensity or anger, it puts the situation in a downward spiral. Kids depend on us to be the rock, and if we aren’t providing steadiness, it’s even harder for them to regulate because their attachment figure is getting overwhelmed as well.”

Shaming, a technique that parents often don’t even realizing they’re engaging in, doesn’t work either. “Sometimes when the child is done with their tantrum, a parent will say, ‘Was that worth having a tantrum over?’ That shames them,” Klein says. “Instead, say, ‘You were having a hard time — let’s give you a hug and move on.’ Don’t harp on what set it off.”

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To help your child through a tantrum, start by helping him or her to label their emotions. “Until we understand what we are feeling, we can’t manage it,” Parlakian says. “So say, ‘You are getting so mad that the puzzle piece won’t fit. You are mad, mad, mad. You are really frustrated. But we can’t throw puzzle pieces, so let’s punch the couch as hard as we can, or stomp and jump up and down until you get the mad out.’ Starting at 18 months, you can model acceptable ways of being mad. Because it’s not the emotion that’s the problem — we all get angry or sad or frustrated — it’s learning proper ways to manage that feeling.”

It’s also important to set clear boundaries, Parlakian says. “If your child is having a meltdown because she doesn’t want to leave the park, you can say, ‘I understand you are angry, but it’s not OK to throw a stick,’” she says. “Be really clear about what the limits are.”

Leaving the scene of the crime can help, too. “If you’re at the grocery store, you might have to leave your cart, pick your child up, and go,” Klein says. “As embarrassing as it may be, they may just really need to get out of there. Often, giving your kid a change of scenery really helps.”

But sometimes, the best way to help your child cope is to let them cry. “You may just have to wait it out,” says Klein. “They can’t be reasonable in that moment, and it’s not always a parent’s job to make a child happy. It’s OK that they have the negative emotions.”

Trying to stop the tantrum is oftentimes more about the parent than the kid. “As parents, the sound of our child crying is so awful we just want to fix it right away,” Parlakian says. “But parents need to recognize that it’s OK to say, ‘Do you need some time to be upset and angry?’ You can even make a space for them. With my own kids, I used a dog bed. I would say, ‘Do you need to go on the cozy bed?’ And my daughter would lay and sob, and then when she was ready to be calm, she was. It’s important, though, that this cozy corner doesn’t become a naughty place, but a place for comforting.”

After parents have suffered through a few tantrums, they might start to recognize their kids’ triggers. Keeping those in mind can be a helpful way of stopping meltdowns before they start, Klein says. “Has there been a lot of change in the routine today? Did your child miss a nap? Were the relatives visiting, and it was fun but chaotic? Some children don’t like big crowds, and a birthday party will set them off — particularly if it is around naptime or late afternoon,” Klein says. “If you have a sense of what sets your kid off, you can make better choices for them.”

Allowing a child some semblance of independence is another great way to stave off breakdowns. “If you have a child who has to leave the park and they don’t want to, you can say, ‘Do you want me to fly you into the car or hop you into the car?’ That way, you aren’t giving them a choice about whether to leave the park, but you are letting them choose how to do it.”

And be clear about what is a choice and what isn’t. “Avoid saying things like, ‘Do you want to go up for a nap now?’ Because that’s not really a choice,” Parlakian says.

Finally, remember to have a sense of humor. “For a kid who doesn’t want to put his shoes on, being silly helps,” Parlakian says. “You say, ‘Mr. Shoe is sad. He has to go on something — let’s put him on my nose! Wait, that’s not right!’ And then the 2-year-old will say, ‘No, those shoes go on my feet!’ And you’ve averted disaster.”

Tantrums, despite how unpleasant they are for everyone involved, really do serve a purpose (something to remember when the going gets really, really tough). “Kids have to be able to feel the negative emotions in order to learn how to handle them,” Klein says. “If we never give our kids a chance to be angry or frustrated, we won’t give them the skills they need to handle negativity and become the resilient kids we’re trying to raise.”

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