Toddler temper tantrums can be frustrating for parents, especially if they happen in public. In this article, you will find out the science behind kid’s temper tantrums and how to deal with them so that your child won’t keep throwing fits again and again.
What Is Temper Tantrum
A temper tantrum is an intense storm of emotions, such as anger, loss, disappointment and deep frustration.
In toddlers, this emotional outbreak can lead to crying, screaming, stomping, falling down, kicking, biting, hitting, throwing things, banging the head or holding breath.
There are two types of tantrums — emotional meltdown and non-emotional tantrums, sometimes known as a Little Nero tantrum.
Fits and temper tantrums are not always about trying to control or manipulate parents. An emotional meltdown happens when the emotional part of the brain (Limbic) becomes over-aroused and takes over the control.
Young toddlers (2-3 yo) are not capable of reasoning or manipulating. They tend to have emotional meltdowns when they’re upset.
In older kids (>3.5 yo), it could be a mixed bag. Older children are still not experts in controlling emotions. Therefore, they can have emotional meltdowns, too.
Sometimes, if a parent has given in to the child’s demand in the past, their children then learn to associate having tantrums with getting what they want. So, Little Nero tantrums are the result of associated learning.
However, a child can start with a Little Nero tantrum but end with an emotional meltdown when things get out of hand.
Why Does a 2 or 3 Year Old Have Tantrums
Toddler tantrums are natural behavior. These emotional meltdowns result from unmet needs or desires. They are more likely to appear in toddlers because that’s when they start to learn that they’re separated from their parents and want to seek independence, and yet they cannot.
A tantrum-throwing toddler is not a spoiled brat.
Their lives may seem cushy. Sure, I’d like to have 13 hours of sleep every night, all play and no work, all meals prepared for and a bath given while I play with a rubber duck. (ok, maybe not the bathing part).
But toddlers can sometimes go through hellish turmoil inside without us knowing.
Babies come to this world with no knowledge of anything.
Two-year-olds have just learned how to walk. They want to explore the world, go everywhere and touch everything. They have just discovered how to use tools, but they don’t have the motor skills fine-tuned enough to get the results they want.
They look to their parents for safety (exploring something they’ve never seen before is scary), comfort (I’m so sad I couldn’t lift that stool), help (a little help getting that pair of scissors, please?) and sharing joy (look, standing on the high chair, no hands!).
But instead of receiving praises, all they get is parents yelling “no”, “stop” and “bad” at them for no reason. WTH? Wouldn’t you be upset, too?
To make things worse, when toddlers are upset, they would feel strong emotions that they have yet learned to control.
Babies are born with a relatively mature stress response system (crying) for survival reasons, but they are not born with emotional regulation capabilities.
The lack of vocabularies to express themselves also adds to their anger and frustration.
Temper tantrums then become their outlets and their words.
When children are having emotional tantrums, they are telling us that they’re in deep emotional pain and they cannot cope on their own.
In other words, they need our help.
What Goes On Inside The Toddler
When a toddler is overcome by stress such as rage, a little alarm (amygdala) inside his emotional brain (aka limbic or lower brain) is triggered.
When this happens, stress hormones are released to course through the toddler’s body and emotions become intense.
This hormonal storm causes anguish and emotional pain which amounts to physical pain.
To control strong emotions, a child needs to first develop the thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) and then the connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.
However, the thinking brain is the last part of the brain to develop and it doesn’t completely mature until the mid-20s. This is why even older children can have difficulty controlling their emotions.
Why Parents Should Handle Toddler Tantrums With Care
At birth, babies have billions of brain cells (neurons) but not many brain cell connections (synapses).
The network of connections is formed through life experiences.
Temper tantrums are some of the most crucial life experiences in sculpting the brain.
Being able to regulate emotions during temper tantrums allows proper brain cell connections to form.
These neural pathways are essential for the child to manage stress and be assertive later in life1.
If a child is not given the opportunity to learn these regulating skills, for example, if tantrums are met with anger or punishment, the child may grow up not being able to handle stress well or be assertive.
The child may also struggle with internalizing problems (e.g. depression, anxiety disorder) or have externalizing issues (e.g. aggression, drug/alcohol abuse).
Emotion dysregulation can also affect future social competence as well as academic performance2,3.
But if handled with care, tantrums can become an invaluable life lesson in emotion regulation which has been shown to link to resilience in children, social competence, academic success and even popularity4.
So remember that not only are kid temper tantrums normal and reasonable, but they are actually desirable in helping toddlers’ emotional development.
Tantrums are desirable??
Yes, you heard that right.
Helping toddlers regulate their emotions during tantrums is one of the most important jobs in parenting5–7.
Related: The Science Of Emotional Regulation
How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums – 7 Proven Steps
1. Use Simple Choices Or Distractions
When a tantrum starts forming, sometimes parents can promptly alleviate it by addressing the issue at hand.
For example, if a child doesn’t want dinner, instead of forcing her to eat which will bring on more emotions, the parent can ask her to choose to eat the meat or the vegetable first.
When questions with simple choices are presented, the child’s thinking brain is activated.
By accessing the child’s higher brain, parents help it stay in control before the emotional brain takes over8,9.
Distraction is another way to excite the logical brain.
Distractions such as letting the toddler have another toy (but not the original one she wanted) or singing a silly song can divert the child’s attention and raise her curiosity.
Curiosity piques the interest of the logical brain and triggers the release of a feel-good chemical (dopamine) in the brain.
This hormone can reduce stress and increase her interest in the newly presented object or event.
Using simple questions, distractions or other ways to engage your child’s critical thinking before emotions escalate to the point of losing control can stamp out a tantrum before it starts.
2. Do Not Reason Because They Cannot Hear
Once the temper tantrum has started, a toddler is flooded with emotions. The emotional brain has taken control, and you cannot reach her thinking brain and verbal functions.
So, when a meltdown is in full swing, trying to reason with her or asking her about her feelings is a waste of time. You may end up upsetting her and arousing her emotions even more.
3. Restore Emotional Balance And Learn To Self-Regulate
Parents can help restore the hormonal balance inside a child’s body by holding or hugging him.
Holding or hugging can activate the calming system in his body and triggers another feel-good chemical (oxytocin) that can regulate his emotions.
Make sure you stay calm yourself before doing this. Otherwise, if your own system is not calm, you may make him more stressed.
Sometimes, positive words or acknowledgments alone such as “I know”, “you must feel very upset” or “I’m so sorry that you’re hurt” are good enough to let a child feel safe and understood.
Parents’ sympathy and attuning to his feelings not only can soothe the child’s emotion, but they can also help build those important pathways between his local and emotional brains.
It is important to help a child learn to regulate his emotions.
Related: 7 Benefits Of Hugging
4. Stay Calm, Be Positive But Do Not Give In
Any parent can tell you that toddlers mimic what grownups do.
That includes the grownup’s control over emotions.
If you get angry and start yelling at the toddler when she throws a tantrum, you are modeling how she should react when things don’t go her way.
But if you stay clam, you are teaching her how to face difficulties and upsetting situations without losing control of emotions.
Another reason why you need to stay calm and positive is that emotions, especially negative ones, are contagious.
Being angry or negative will only increase your child’s stress.
However, being positive doesn’t mean giving in. You can positively acknowledge their frustration while keeping your boundaries.
You can say, “I see that you are very angry and frustrated. I’m sorry. But you cannot have candy right before dinner” kindly and firmly.
Giving in once in a while is particularly bad, because intermittent reinforcement encourages the behavior you’re trying to stopped like no other. Instead of teaching your child that it’s only an one-time exception, you are teaching him that if he’s persistent enough, you will cave in eventually.
5. Do Not Punish. Time-Out Is A Last Resort
Let’s say you are suffering from intense pain.
It is so much so that you drop to the ground and writhe.
Do you want your loved ones to punish you, walk away from you or lock you in a room by yourself?
Sometimes temper tantrums may start as means to get something the toddler wants.
But if left undealt with, it can escalate into a strong hormonal storm which a young child is not equipped to cope with by himself.
When that happens, it becomes a genuine case of uncontrollable anguish and pain.
Punishment, time-out or isolation will add to that pain.
Brain scans show that the pain from social isolation activates the same neural region as physical pain10.
Think about this, if you are in intense emotional pain, will inflicting physical pain on you help you feel better?
No, it will not. It will feel like adding insult to injury.
It’s the same with your toddler.
In addition, it will teach your child that he cannot trust you to help him or understand his grief when he’s in pain and needs you.
If a child learns early on that expressing big feelings will result in parental anger or punishment, he may resort to being compliant or being defiant.
Either way, it means the child will not have the opportunity to form proper brain connections to deal with strong emotions.
When facing frustrations later in life, he may struggle to be assertive or have angry outbursts.
Sometimes, if a toddler in distress is met with negative or lack of responses from his parents, he may stop crying.
But that doesn’t mean he is not in distress any more.
Studies have shown that distressed young children can still have high stress hormonal level inside his body despite appearing calm.
In some cases, this dissociation between behavioral and physiological responses can lead to emotional or mental health problems later in life.
Time-out should be used as a last resort.
It should only be used when the child has hurt someone intentionally such as biting or hitting and when he is not already flooded with emotions.
And it should be non-punitively and done in a kind and firm way.
6. Teach Vocabularies So They Can Express Themselves Properly
When the dust has settled, when your child has thoroughly de-escalated from the intense emotional state, you can review what happened with her.
Teach her what she can say next time she wants something.
Teach her how to use words, instead of throwing things, to express her feelings.
Narrating what happened can also help her create those important neural connections to manage emotional situations in future9,11.
You can even tell her how you feel when she throws a tantrum.
It says to her that it is alright to have feelings and feelings can be controlled.
You are also teaching her how her action can affect others and what empathy is.
7. Prevent Tantrums Before They Appear
There are things parents can do to prevent tantrums.
Look for HALT:
H – Hunger
A – Anger
L – Lonely
T – Tiredness
Children are more prone to throw fits when they are hungry or tired.
When these physical factors are present, all it takes is a trigger to set things in motion.
So, set a schedule of sleep-eat-rest to avoid these tantrum traps.
Being bored, stressed, angry, frustrated or disappointed are also effective triggers.
Prevent tantrums from happening from the beginning.
If you know your child will be upset when not getting something, provide alternatives or distractions in advance.
It’s much easier to access their logical thinking to prevent tantrums than to put them out once they start.
A Little Nero Temper Tantrums
There are times when a toddler is behaving like a Little Nero.
He wants something and he won’t stop screaming and kicking until he gets it.
When a child is in this power struggle mode, he is not flooded with hormones and intense emotions.
You can tell by the lack of painful expressions on his face and body.
With this type of tantrums, most parents know they cannot give in or they would be teaching their children to use tantrum to get whatever they want.
Some people advocate ignoring the child.
But think about it.
How would you feel if you want something but your loved one ignores you?
You feel more upset!
For a toddler, that’s like adding fuel to fire.
If she’s old enough to reason, she may understand that it’s not working and stop the tantrum.
But if she’s too young or too upset to do so, it can push her right into an emotional storm.
Instead of ignoring, acknowledging his desires and mirroring his emotion may be all it takes for him to calm down and be receptive to the enforced boundaries.
Here is an example.
If your child is shouting, “I want this!”.
You can mirror his expression and shout mildly back to him, “I know you really want this. You really really want this!”
What you’re doing here is attuning to his feelings.
Emotional attunement tells your child that you get it, you get that he’s upset.
When your child feels understood, you will have his attention and the rational thinking that comes with it.
It’s half the battle won.
The other half is to let him know calmly the reason such as “But I’m sorry. You just cannot have ice cream before dinner.”
Are Tantrums Normal
Toddler tantrums are very common12.
They are the most common childhood behavioral problems reported by parents.
A study conducted by University of Wisconsin on 1219 families showed that 87% of children at 18-24 months had displayed tantrums.
At 30-36 months, 91% did.
The prevalence then decreased to 59% at 42-48 months.
So, you’re not alone.
Your child is not bad.
You are not a bad parent.
Why Does My Child Seem More Difficult Than Others?
It is possible that your child has some inborn temperament traits that fall into the difficult category.
But that’s not the child’s fault that they’re born with such temperament.
What works well for easy children may not work for the difficult ones.
For example, simple choices and distractions may not be enough to activate those children’s logical brains.
You need to do more work to restore your child’s emotional balance and spend more time teaching them how to express their feelings with words.
With patience and persistence, even difficult children can learn to integrate their logical and emotional brains and stop using tantrums as outlets.
When Will This Tantrum Phase Pass
Tantrums usually begin in children at 12-18 months and stop at around the age of 4.
When Are Temper Tantrums Not Normal
American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you call your pediatrician or family physician if:
- Tantrums get worse after age 4
- Your child injures himself or herself or others, or destroys property during tantrums
- Your child holds his or her breath during tantrums, especially if he or she faints
- Your child also has nightmares, reversal of toilet training, headaches, stomachaches, anxiety, refuses to eat or go to bed, or clings to you
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