What’s Behind Toddler Tantrums

A few weeks ago, a mom friend sent me one of those “gotta share” emails. It was a link to a blog post by comedian Jason Good called “46 Reasons My Three Year Old Might Be Freaking Out.” A few of the first possibilities included: “His sock is on wrong. His shirt has a tag in it. His lip tastes salty.” As I read on, it became clear that the possibilities were really endless and hilarious. After a good laugh-out-loud moment, I realized that the post was so funny because it was true.

I, too, am currently living with a toddler time bomb. You never really know what will set her off. Is it normal that my daughter screams if her shoe isn’t on just right, loves spaghetti one night but throws it across the room the next, and yells “MINE” if our cat gets too close to her toy?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. It’s actually not only normal, experts say it’s reasonable too. Toddlers act irrationally as a reflection of their inner frustrations. In short, the world around them is constantly changing, and they don’t yet have the skills to handle it. Tantrums don’t mean your child needs therapy; they simply mean she’s normal.

I have to admit, I’ve often envied my daughter’s cushy lifestyle. I’d love to sleep 12 hours a day and have all my meals prepared and delivered to me. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says the toddler lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it seems.

When toddlers learn to walk and use tools, they desperately want to explore their surroundings. But, at the same time, they are nervous about exploring the unknown and ever fearful that their parents, whom they trust to a terrifying degree, will abandon them. Those same parents have also gone from all smiles and laughs to barking “no” constantly. Sounds like a rough time. It’s no wonder that children start having tantrums around the same time parents start enforcing rules. When you say “no, sweetie, you can’t have that knife,” your toddler doesn’t understand that you’re taking away her new shiny toy for her own safety.

“Since it’s the parent, whom they rely on for everything, who is taking it away, it’s perceived as a withdrawal of love, essentially,” says Alicia Lieberman, a professor of Infant Mental Health at the University of California-San Francisco and author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler. “They don’t know your reasoning. They just know that something they were getting great pleasure from, all of a sudden, you are taking away.” The pain that this causes, Lieberman says, is similar to what we might feel if our spouse betrays or cheats on us.

Another issue with the toddler brain, according to the AAP, is that the frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning, logic, reasoning, working memory and self-control, is immensely underdeveloped. Because of this, there is no voice in your toddler’s head saying, “hum, maybe it’s not a good idea to throw myself to the floor in the middle of Wal-Mart and flop around like a dying fish.” This is unfortunate, because the fish flop is a favorite of my daughter’s, even though she has flopped down on rocks and cement in the past…it’s that working memory thing.

So what can we do to help our little bipolar babies? Experts say to wait it out. The AAP says you shouldn’t worry until your child is past the age of three. Once children reach the age of 4, they can typically communicate their needs and wants more clearly with words.

Tips for Handling Toddler Tantrums

So how do we make it to 4 and keep our sanity? Below are some tips from the AAP to handle tantrums.

  • Try to stay calm. If you shout or get angry, it can make things worse.
  • Distract your child. Try a new game, book or toy. Sometimes just a change in environment will do the trick.
  • Give your child a time-out. Take your child away from the problem and give her alone time to calm down.
  • Ignore minor displays of anger such as crying, screaming, or kicking. Try holding your child to calm her. If you are in a public place, leave for someplace private like the car.
  • Never punish your child for a temper tantrum. She may start to keep her anger or frustration inside, which can be unhealthy. If you have questions, always ask your pediatrician.

Given all the circumstances, it’s no wonder toddlers break down so easily. In fact, I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often. If my entire world were terrifyingly new and unpredictable and I couldn’t communicate, had no experience or much of a frontal lobe… I’d probably freak out too!

Categories: Little Ones