Screaming toddler having a tantrum

Understanding Toddler Temper Tantrums: Why They Occur and How to Help Your Child Through It

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The toddler years are a time of rapid change in development and emotions. One day your little one will be giggling with you on the living room floor, and then the next they’ll have an absolute meltdown when you tell them it’s time to put their toys away for bed! Recent research can provide insight into toddler temper tantrums, showing that these outbursts reveal much more about the child’s feelings and thoughts. This means that tantrums serve an important role in a child’s healthy development as they’re building their independence, and we as parents and caregivers can use them to help us better support our kids.

Why does my child have temper tantrums?

Children throwing temper tantrums might be acting out because they’re overtired, hungry, unwell, or frustrated and don’t have coping skills in place to deal with the problem. They may also act this way when they’re trying to avoid doing something, or if they want to get something from an adult.

Whenever a toddler tantrums, it’s their brain’s threat detection system in action. The key parts of that process are happening in the amygdala, which is where our brains process and deal with big feelings, and in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain which controls the body’s unconscious management of heart rate and body temperature.

The emotional and physical processes during a tantrum are absolutely normal, but it’s the last stage in the process where things can go a little awry. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating behaviors and emotions, isn’t actually developed yet. Toddlers are much more emotionally sensitive than grown-ups, and when they feel deeply frustrated or upset over something like the color of their drink bottle, they can’t calmly express what they’re going through.

How to make toddler tantrums less likely

You can help make tantrums less likely by doing the following:

  • Don’t be afraid to discuss emotions with them. Help your child identify and express their strong feelings by asking questions about what’s making them feel this way. For example, “Did you kick your brother because he took your toy? What else could you do instead?”
  • Tune in to their feelings. If you know your child’s feelings, you’ll most likely notice when a tantrum is forthcoming. In these instances, try to talk about what’s happening and help them through the difficult feeling. Consider distracting them from their current challenge in order to reduce stress levels and keep the situation under control.
  • Identify regular tantrum triggers. For example, tantrums might be more likely when you’re shopping, so giving your child a nap and snack before you go would possibly prevent tantrums at the stores.
  • Reduce the intensity and stress of their environment. Kids who are tired, hungry, and overstimulated will typically have more tantrums.
  • Make note of tantrum behavior.– if your child regularly hits themselves in the head when they’re having a tantrum, noting this down and looking for patterns may help you get to the bottom of things.

How to handle tantrums when they happen

Even the most attentive parents can be caught unaware by their child’s frustration. Given how toddlers’ growing brains are feeling at the moment, there are a number of ways to help your little one handle disruptive tantrums:

  • Let your child know that you understand his or her feelings. For example, ‘It’s frustrating when your toy doesn’t work the way you want it to, isn’t it?’ This break gives your child a chance to correct their behavior before things get out of hand.
  • Stay with them and wait it out. Stay near your child to let them know that you’re there and available. Don’t try to reason with or distract your child. Once a tantrum has begun they won’t be able to change course easily, and they’ll miss the opportunity to practice managing their feelings.
  • Take charge when you need to. If your child’s tantrum was caused by something your child wants or isn’t willing to do, don’t give in. Consistency in your behavior makes it easier for your child to identify their own best course of action.
  • Stay calm (read more about mirror neurons below!). If you are angry, take a moment for yourself. Showing your anger could make the situation worse, and teach your child to also get angry in situations like this. When you speak with your child, keep your voice calm and level in order to help control their behavior as well.

A bonus strategy for managing tantrums in early school-age children:

The changes in your child’s temperament at this age, coupled with their newfound ability to understand that actions lead to outcomes, could see you adding consequences (both positive and negative) for behavior to your strategy.

Make sure not to reinforce a tantrum by giving in or rewarding it in other ways, like through a ‘compromise’ of the same value as what they were after in the first place. For example, your child tantrums because they want a lolly, so you try to break them out of it by offering them a piece of cake instead. Shouting at your child, or pleading with them during a tantrum can also reward them, as it is giving them attention. Just being there to show support means your child can take ownership over what they are going through.

How staying calm yourself helps a child having a tantrum

A tried and true tactic for helping out through a toddler temper tantrum is to stay as calm you can, because it often actually helps the child calm down. Researchers aren’t sure why, but some think it might be related to mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are a type of brain cells that is activated when we mimic another person’s actions. So, they get activated while you’re trying to copy a dance move, for example. Though their precise operation is still a mystery, scientists investigating the biology of emotions believe that mirror-neurons play a key role in emotional mimicry.

Children learn by mimicking the behavior of those around them. When a toddler sees someone being calm, their mirror neurons might tell them to do the same. However, when parents act stressed or angry as a result of their child having a tantrum, they might be indirectly instructing their child’s brain to get angry too. So in addition to providing a child with moral support, staying calm may also be key for helping your toddler navigate his or her angry and tearful moments – you yourself will make better choices. When our children behave in ways that make us angry, we are more likely to make rash decisions that don’t help.

How to cope with tantrums

Though it feels like you should put an immediate stop to tantrums and reduce the stress in your home, it can often help to take a step back and put things in perspective before taking action.

Here are some tips for staying cool, calm, and collected:

  • Make a plan. Have a clear strategy for dealing with tantrums in various scenarios, like the grocery store, and make effort to carry it out during the tantrum when you can.
  • Make sure you don’t laugh at or joke about the tantrum. By doing this you’re rewarding your child with attention, or you may make them feel upset and misunderstood.
  • Let some control go. Do not try to control your child’s emotions or behaviors directly. Keeping them safe and gently guiding their behavior are your best options for when these situations arise.
  • Know that change will take some time. You can rest assured that tantrums are a natural part of development. Children need patience as they learn how to regulate their impulses and emotions – it’s something even adults work on!
  • Ignore judgmental glances or comments from others if your child is having a tantrum in public. Either they’ve not had first-hand toddler experience, it’s been a long time since they’ve had a young child, or they’re flat out lying to themselves about their own children’s behavior.
  • Don’t assume your child is doing this on purpose, or that they are trying to aggravate you. Tantrums are a coping mechanism for children who don’t have the skills to handle their current situation.

Can tantrums be a sign of autism?

The amygdala in the brain develops differently in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) than it does for those who have neurotypical development. The amygdala also plays an important role in the experience of fear and anxiety. In children with ASD there is a connection between how anxious they are feeling during the day and how often they have temper tantrums as they process their emotions.

Neuron numbers increase in the human amygdala from birth to adulthood, but not for those who are autistic. Autistic children may have more difficulty regulating their emotions as a result, leading to more frequent tantrums.

Keeping calm and watching a toddler’s tantrum behavior helps us learn what triggers their mood, and know when a little extra help from us. While tantrums are a normal part of child development, they can also be a symptom of an underlying mood or disruptive behavior disorder. Assessing and treating these early on can help children have better prospects for long-term success.

What research has said about tantrums – then, and now.

The 1940’s to 1990’s

In the past, researchers thought that tantrums were just violent outbursts of anger. Around the 1990s, psychologists came to understand that there are two different emotions in temper tantrums: anger and sadness, so the ways you could best help a child through would differ depending on what they’re experiencing.

An angry toddler tantrum may mean they do not want to be comforted. A sad toddler tantrum would typically see a child want comfort through someone sitting with them or doing something else that they enjoy. The primary assumption was that one emotion flowed from another; children would start angry and end up sad, or vice versa. So what you should do depended on where your child was up to as they processed their emotions, but researchers couldn’t agree on whether anger or sadness came first.

The more recent research on emotions during tantrums

Psychologists have come to the realization that tantrums are much more complex than originally believed. Toddlers can experience a range of emotions at different intensities all at once. In a 2011 study, scientists looked at whether what a toddler vocalized could help identify what they were actually going through emotionally. They attached microphones to their onesies, then let them go about their day.

The study, which analyzed almost 1300 different vocalizations during tantrums, found that toddlers used different audio frequencies for each emotion: lower frequency, quieter vocalizations expressed sadness, and higher frequency, louder vocalizations expressed anger. They saw that patterns in the frequencies used for different emotions differed; sad ones peaked at the midpoint while angry frequencies were a bigger deal at the start. These unique patterns allow the researchers to track a child’s feelings throughout a tantrum. Rather than feeling anger or sadness exclusively, most children expressed both emotions pretty much the whole time.

So at the end of the day, a tantruming toddler’s cries or screams tell you that they’re sad or angry, but that they’re actually both sad and angry – something we didn’t think was the case. Doesn’t that make things harder for parents and caregivers to help a child? Perhaps. It does mean that a little listening could point you in the right direction, though.

In conclusion – your child is going to have temper tantrums, and it doesn’t make you a bad parent.

Understanding why a toddler tantrum happens can help you better support your child’s healthy development. You might not be able to prevent them, or make the temper tantrum stage easier to get through, knowing its cause means you can be more understanding and supportive of the emotions they’re experiencing as they learn how to regulate themselves.

They’re learning about emotions, and that’s something even us adults find difficult.

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