Toddler Tantrums

Toddler tantrums.

We have all seen them. All children have meltdowns. Yes, there are different degrees of them. I have seen all levels from my children personally. At home, at a relative’s house, etc.

It is embarrassing.

It is aggravating.

It is obnoxious.

It is normal.

Read that again: it is normal. 

It breaks my heart when I read or hear about how terrible someone’s child is for having a meltdown. Your child is not broken, they aren’t always ungrateful little prats, and they aren’t always asking for a whoopin’. (We are talking about toddlers today, not your pre-teen. I want to discuss the reasons for tantrums in small children.)

As adults, we expect our kids to act like adults. Um, that is not possible because ahem, they are kids. We are, perhaps unknowingly, projecting unreachable expectations on our children. I am guilty of it as well, though now more cognizant of it.

Tantrums are a normal part of human development and we see that as negative. When a child walks, we celebrate that as a normal part of development, but their mental and emotional growth is seen as negative and something we have to eradicate as quick as possible. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we should throw a party and positively encourage such meltdowns, but thinking our children are broken, bad, abnormal, etc, is absolutely ridiculous.

Children do not have the ability to control all of their actions, thoughts, feelings, or inhibitions. 

Even if you think that your child is the brightest child in the history of the universe, he or she is still a child who has limited biological and physiological abilities. Some children have tantrums daily while some rarely have them; temperament (natural personality/behavior) varies in each person.

“Let’s take a quick tour of the human brain, stopping at a little blob of gray matter behind the eyebrows called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and controls social control. It’s also the last area of the brain to develop; it has only just begun to mature at age 4. That immaturity—as difficult as it makes parenting a toddler or a preschooler—may serve an important developmental role in the acquisition of language (the most significant social tool humans have), says a new report out of the University of Pennsylvania. The authors posit that the underdeveloped PFC is what allows young children to master a new language much more easily than adults. Simply put, our kids’ more disagreeable behavior may be an evolutionary trade-off for the sake of human communication. “Kids this age think magically, not logically,” explains Gina Mireault, Ph.D., a professor of Psychology at Johnson State College, in Vermont. “Events that are ordinary to us are confusing and scary to them. They don’t understand that the bathtub drain won’t swallow them or that their uncle can’t really snatch their nose.” And if you’re not sure whether or not a simple bath will end in your demise, needless to say, you’re going to feel pretty confused and prone to anxiety on a daily basis.” This feeling of heightened arousal causes our bodies to release cortisol, known as the “fight or flight” hormone. Maybe it should be called “tantrum juice:” Cortisol increases blood pressure, speeds up breathing rates and may lead to confused or unclear thinking (sound like anyone you know?). This anxiety is developmentally typical in moderation, but chronic anxiety or stress—Is my stuffed Tigger going to come alive and eat me?—is not; it can turn kids into virtual bundles of kindling primed to ignite at the slightest provocation.” 

I have seen numerous adults, including myself, have a meltdown a time or two. Here is a great example I read online: “Imagine how it feels when you’re determined to program your DVD player and aren’t able to do it, no matter how hard you try, because you can’t understand how. It’s pretty frustrating – do you swear, throw the manual, walk away, and slam the door on your way out? That’s the adult version of a tantrum. Toddlers are also trying to master their world and when they aren’t able to accomplish a task, they turn to one of the only tools at their disposal for venting frustration; a tantrum.”

Frustration.

Several basic causes of tantrums are familiar to parents everywhere: The child is seeking attention or is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. In addition, tantrums are often the result of kids’ frustration with the world; they can’t get something (for example, an object or a parent) to do what they want. Frustration is an unavoidable part of their lives as they learn how people, objects, and their own bodies work. Why is it ok for us as adults to get frustrated, but not for children?

Tantrums are especially common during the second and third  year of life, a time when children are acquiring language. Toddlers generally understand more than they can express. Imagine not being able to communicate your needs to someone: a frustrating experience that may precipitate a tantrum.

Another task toddlers are faced with is an increasing need for autonomy. Toddlers want a sense of independence and control over the environment — more than they may be capable of handling. This creates the perfect condition for power struggles as a child thinks “I can do it myself” or “I want it, give it to me.” When kids discover that they can’t do it and can’t have everything they want, the stage is set for a tantrum.

This all goes back to my point of us as parents, and any adult really, trying to make children older than they really are. We try to make them do things they are actually incapable of doing. It is not fair.

I am talking about toddlers and even up to the age of preschool here. As kids age, tantrums should begin to lessen. If your toddler is having consistent meltdowns, obviously try to figure out what is causing them. Is there a pattern? I have found that when tired, pushed to the brink of exhaustion, my son is more prone to whining and tantrums. When my daughter tries so hard to do something by herself and physically cannot, because she is tiny (really tiny), she throws down like a champion.

I have resolved to use my words, in a calm and reassuring tone, to teach them. Yelling, beating the bad behavior out of them, and or acting just like them only reinforces that behavior: Negative attention is still attention. If the child is not ready to calm down, we suggest a quiet place, usually their bedroom, to ‘get it all out’ and when they are ready to calmly talk about it, they can come out and start over. We remind them that we love them, but that their behavior is not the right way to accomplish what they want. We fix the situation as calmly as possible. By now you may have tuned out, written me off as crazy, whatever. These practices work in our home because we are consistent and treat our children as human beings, with their own unique personalities, but they still know the rules.

My children do not really have meltdowns in public and are well behaved 95% of the time. We cannot ever expect our children, or anyone for that manner, to be perfect 100% of the time. 

Every family has their own practices, rules, etc, that they put into place. My only suggestions are that you let your children know these rules and the consequences ahead of time, stay calm and consistent, model love, and do not project unreasonable expectations that they will never be able to achieve at the time.

-Jaimie
Mother of two toddlers
B.S. Human Development

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