When a child throws a tantrum in public there are a whole number of negative feelings flying around, all while it can be very aggravating for parents. It’s understandable that screaming kids in public isn’t pleasant. In this article, you’ll learn about the science behind toddler tantrums and how to cope with the terrible twos for optimal child development so that your child doesn’t have tantrums again and over.
Read Time: 10 min
What exactly is a “terrible-twos” tantrum?
Anger, loss, disappointment, and deep irritation are all common feelings of parents that accompany a temper tantrum. Emotional outbursts in toddlers around the age of two can result in crying, writhing, screaming fits, stomping, slapping parents, falling down, kicking, biting, throwing things, hitting their head against the floor or walls, or holding their breath 1. The dreadful twos is a term that has been coined to describe emotional floods at this age. I’m going to give you a spoiler alert. Tantrums don’t end when they turn 3, or 13 and can even go into 30’s or 40’s if we’re being honest here.
What are the two types of tantrums in toddlers?
Emotional meltdowns (downstairs brain) and non-emotional tantrums, or manipulative tantrums (upstairs brain), are the two forms of temper tantrums.2
According to Daniel Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson in their book The Whole Brain Child, the downstairs brain is the part of the brain that is in charge of basic human functions and primal emotions like fight, flight or freeze. This is the area of the brain that is triggered when the basic needs are not met, such as when a child is tired, hungry, or scared. When there are external conditions that are affecting the child, their brain goes in to overwhelm. Then there is some “straw that breaks the camel’s back” such as saying no, you can’t have that cookie, that sends the child’s brain into an emotional meltdown. The brain simply says to the body, “I can’t take this anymore, there is too much that has piled up and I need to get rid of some feelings and emotions, NOW!”
It’s not always about trying to dominate or manipulate parents when children throw fits and tantrums. When the emotional component of the brain (limbic) becomes over-aroused, it takes control from the cognitive half of the brain, resulting in an emotional breakdown (pre-frontal cortex). The limbic area (downstairs area) of the brain and also includes the brain stem. It’s where the basic functions of the brain happen, like breathing and blinking. It is also where the impulses and strong emotions for safety are stored, like fight or flight or duck for cover. There is another portion of the downstairs brain that is a key contributor in tantrums and it is the amygdala.
The amygdala is a small almond sized portion in the limbic area of the brain. It is the area that quickly processes and expresses emotions, like anger or fear. When it does sense that it needs to jump in and “save” the body, it will take over from the upstairs brain, which is the think about it, process it, empathize area. The amygdala senses the need to act immediately before we think. The book describes the amygdala as the “baby-gate” to the upstairs brain. Sometimes the baby-gate locks down the upstairs brain because a perceived sense of immediate action needed, like “I need a cookie, NOW!” so the amygdala jumps into action, locking out the upstairs portion of the brain that, though still under construction, can sometimes reason and think about consequences. A rush of emotions then floods in to meet the perceived need and voila – temper tantrum, because there is no way to reason when the “lid has been flipped”, …which, by the way, is a technical term that they use in the book.
The upstairs portion of the brain is cerebral and middle pre-frontal cortex. This is the more sophisticated area of the brain from a processing perspective. It gives a broader perspective of the world. This is where thinking, planning and imagining occurs. Interestingly enough, this is also the area of the brain where emotional control and regulation are stored. So typically, when this area of the brain is working cohesively, this is where the child can think about the consequences, think before acting, think about other’s feelings (empathy), and think about how they might be able to regulate their emotions before an outburst.
What do we always hear about mastering a new skill? Practice, practice, practice. So when the upstairs and the downstairs are working well and all systems are operating like a well oiled machine, things are great. When there is a cog in the machinery, like hunger, being tired or really wanting something and being told no, the machine breaks down.
I do want to make note however, that to be able to control powerful emotions, a child must first grow the prefrontal cortex (thinking section of the brain) and then the connections between the thinking and emotional brains. The thinking brain, on the other hand, is the final component of the brain to develop, and it does not fully mature until the mid-20s. This is why even older children may struggle to manage their emotions.
So why is it important to make the distinction between different types of tantrums. It’s a distinction to help you, the parent. If there is a downstairs, limbic brain, emotional meltdown, you will recognize it by taking a minute to connect the dots and realize that they are tired or hungry or overstimulated. It makes it easier for you to then anchor into your own emotional state and have some empathy and realize that there are some needs that you can help the child meet by getting some food or giving a big hug. When you feel like the child is trying to manipulate or coerce, you can take a moment and anchor that into your system and realize that you probably need to stand firm with your boundary. Trying to reason will not work when they are in this state. We will talk more about the right and left hemispheres of the brain later which gives us the ability to connect and redirect in these kinds of situations.
The greatest advice that I will give you in this situation is to not take the tantrum personally and to really not worry about what other people think. EVERY parent in the world has been through what you are going through at that moment, and those that don’t have kids and are passing judgement have no idea. Just take a moment and remember; you are not a bad parent, and you love your child unconditionally.
Children’s brain develops in several different stages – and knowing what happens in each one is crucial knowledge to you as a parent. We’ve invested huge amounts of time in researching the development of child’s brain, and we’ve got some pretty interesting findings. Check it out!
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What causes tantrums and screaming kids?
Around the age of two, children begin to have temper tantrums. The Terrible Twos is a term used to describe this stage of toddlerhood. Outbursts in toddlers are a normal part of growing up. Unmet needs or desires cause emotional meltdowns in toddlers. See also article, “What are tantrums?” Tantrums seem to be more common in toddlers since that’s when they first realize that they can express emotions aside from fear and I’m hungry or tired.
Babies are born into this world with very few skills or tools. Tantrums are one of the few tools children have to obtain adults’ attention to have their needs and desires met. It is also how they can express emotion before they have the tools and language to do it through words.
A toddler that throws tantrums is not a spoiled brat. A tantrum is actually a biochemical response that happens in the brain. Cortisol, which is a stress triggered hormone, stops the flow of dopamine and endorphins in the brain. I think that we have all heard of these hormones enough to know that dopamine and endorphins are the feel good hormones. When those get shut down, there is no more feeling good in those moments and often then the cortisol triggers overwhelming distress.
Toddlers get to explore and be adventurous. Everything is new to them and they are just starting to figure out how their bodies work from ages 2 and up. They are exploring their bodies, their environment, reactions and expressions from other people and they are exploring their boundaries. Think about how fun that was, when everything was new and the world was your oyster. Then imagine hearing NO! every few minutes, and your joyful explorations being squashed? Seeing the look of fear or dismay or anger on your parent’s face, when usually it’s all smiles and cooing. That’s enough to send the cortisol racing and stop the endorphins and dopamine. “Wait a minute, I want to go back to the fun!!! You’re scaring me and making me feel like I’m not safe or secure. I protest!!!” And down the tantrum path we go. Sometimes they upset themselves even more by how their body is exploding with emotion, and they don’t really know what’s happening.
With this new insight, we can see, and possibly remember that toddlers can go through horrible internal anguish. They go to their parents for protection (exploring something they’ve never seen before is scary), comfort (I’m so sorry I couldn’t move that stool), assistance (could you please help me get those scissors? ), and joy (see, I’m standing on the high chair with no hands!).
To make matters worse, when toddlers are unhappy, they are likely to experience powerful emotions that they have not yet learned to control. For survival reasons, babies are born with a rather advanced stress response system (crying), but they lack emotional regulation abilities as that part of their brain hasn’t starting firing yet.
When children have emotional temper tantrums and can’t stop sobbing, they are communicating that they are experiencing severe emotional distress and are unable to manage on their own. They need us. They need connection and to know that it’s going to be alright. It’s also scary for them to not be in control of their emotions and how things feel in their bodies. These are new sensations as well. That is another topic for another day, or you can explore it right now in the Connection Parenting Guide.
Tantrums in toddlers and child development
Babies brains contain billions of cells (neurons) before birth, but few connections have been formed between them (synapses). Life experiences 1 help to establish the network of connections.
Temper tantrums can be important life experiences in the development of the brain. When you can control your emotions during a temper tantrum, correct brain cell connections form. These brain connections, or neural pathways, are necessary for a child’s stress management, and ability to self-regulate later in life.
If a child is not given the opportunity to learn how to regulate themselves when big emotions happen, such as temper tantrums, or they are told to stop acting out or that they are fine and to get over it or are treated with anger or punishment, the child may grow up unable to handle stress or assert themselves because they haven’t learned how to cope.
Internalizing disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety disorder) or externalizing issues (e.g., violence, oppositional defiant disorder, drug/alcohol misuse) may also be present in the youngster who has been held back from expressing themselves, either verbally or emotionally. Emotion dysregulation can also have an impact on social competence and academic success in the future 4,5. Temper tantrums, on the other hand, can become great life lessons in emotion control, which has been linked to child resilience, social competence, academic performance, and even popularity.
So even though the tantrums are tough on us parents, keep in mind that temper tantrums are not only a natural aspect of child growth, but they can also be beneficial to a toddler’s social and emotional development. Love and patience are key, both for yourself and for your child.
To ensure that your child is fully motivated, well-guided, and is harnessing its full potential – we’ve created a step-by-step guide on how to motivate your kids to become the best versions of themselves. Check it out and try out our science-backed parenting methods!
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Before your child even considers to throw a tantrum the next time you will be able to see the signs and redirect within minutes. Learn in depth about all the techniques and strategies in the Connection Parenting guide. You will be able to connect with your kids, your message will be heard, and you will know to set boundaries in ways that actually make sense to them without encountering resistance.
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