Why Toddlers Throw Temper Tantrums
Research explains why toddlers have temper tantrums and the reasons behind bad behavior.
With my 3-year-old twins in tow, I navigated several steep flights of subway stairs, managed four train transfers, and arrived safely at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. I took photos of them in front of the giant Apatosaurus skeleton and imparted (probably erroneous, but who cares?) facts about the Jurassic era. I am the best. Mother. Ever!
To top off the special day, I decided to treat them to an educational toy at the gift shop. My son Theo wanted an astronaut, so I brought him to the space display and let him choose between three astronaut-themed items (I'm so smart to give my preschooler a sense of control by offering him a choice!). “No, astronaut!” he began to whine. “This is an astronaut,” I said brightly, pointing to one of the helmeted play figures. “No!” He then slapped all the items out of my hand and began screaming. Ten minutes later, after Theo had stomped on a dozen packages of freeze-dried ice cream, I tucked one boy under each arm and staggered out. I am the worst mother ever, I said to myself, embarrassed, drained, and near tears.
Turns out, the scene at the museum was not all my fault, and it doesn't mean my boy is “bad,” either. Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, has spent the latest part of his professional career studying tantrums and how and why young children have such brutally emotional explosions. And what has he learned in that time? That their outbursts are as normal a biological response to anger and frustration as a yawn is to fatigue. So normal, in fact, that you can make a science out of the progression of a tantrum and predict one down to the second. Kids from about 18 months to 4 years are simply hardwired to misbehave, he says. And that means “nurture” (i.e., you) isn't always to blame.
The Mush Behind the Madness: Your Tot's Noggin
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 behavior. 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.
Okay, so they've got these mushy brain parts that make them prone to outbursts and irrational displays of emotion, but there's another factor at play in the toddler/preschooler's often difficult behavior: stress. “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.