Her child’s cries pierced through the noise of the busy grocery store. This happened every time she denied her daughter a treat. And people were staring as the screaming got louder and louder. Why did she do this? Well, now neurologists know what happens in a child’s brain during a tantrum – and how to stop it… Thank god.
This could be a game changer for any parent or guardian, but especially those plagued by their child’s tantrums. They’re quite common too; a toddler can’t communicate as well as an adult. So they voice their issues loudly – screaming being a part of that.
“Tantrums come from your child not getting what they want,” Kidshealth reported in 2018. “Think of tantrums as their way of telling you they’re upset and frustrated.” According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), these outbursts usually begin in kids of roughly 18-months-old and continue until a child’s third year. Not constantly, mind you – they take breaks in between.
It’s not unheard of for older children to have tantrums, too. So just how common are the dreaded meltdowns? Medicine.net reports that anywhere from 23 percent to 85 percent of two to four-year-olds have them. But not only is the onset of a tantrum inconvenient, it also has a psychological effect.
Ph.D. and author Thomas Phelan elaborated more on the subject to Parents.com in May 2020. “The biggest problem with temper tantrums is the threat of embarrassment,” he explained. “You fear that you’re going to look like a totally inept parent in front of everyone. And by the time kids are 13-months-old, they sense that.”
Since young brains grow quickly at that age, it’s a bit of a mystery what children think. Phelan indicated that kids know on some level that tantrums have an effect on their parents, too. But studies over the past decade have uncovered fascinating insights into what’s happening underneath the emotional outbursts.
So why do kids erupt? One of the most prevalent myths about tantrums is that their guardians are doing something wrong. It’s their kid, so it must be their fault, right? Actually no, not at all – any child can have an episode, regardless of the parent’s approach. That’s something to remember.
Another common misconception is that a child’s tantrum is an intentional effort to show up their parent. If they sense that you’re embarrassed, perhaps they do it on purpose to make you feel bad. And to make matters worse, they only seem to blow up when they’re around you rather than, say, their childminder.
It’s understandable to feel that way, yet you’re probably projecting adult emotions onto your toddler. In fact, that kind of logic is beyond kids. And according to Eileen Hayes, author of Tantrums – Understanding and Coping with your Child’s Emotions, if they only tantrum around you it’s a good thing.
“Believe it or not, this is a compliment,” Hayes wrote on the Supernanny website. “Your child feels most emotionally secure with you, and knows you will still love her no matter how she behaves. After being on best behaviour all day at nursery, it is common to boil over with parents.”
If none of these reasons cause childhood tantrums, then what does? There can be a number of triggers, but they’re usually due to something the child can’t process or express. They can’t just tell you what’s wrong, after all! It’s the only way they can “voice” (or cry, or scream) their concerns.
Sometimes it’s as simple as having a physical need they can’t fulfil. Put yourself, for example, in the shoes of a child (not literally, you won’t fit). Now imagine that you’re tired or hungry. You can’t just go to bed or get something to eat like an adult would. That must be frustrating.
The same goes for when a child’s doing something we take for granted every day. Getting dressed or putting shoes on must seem like monumental tasks for a toddler. We’ve all been in a position where our best efforts fail, and we just want to yell and scream. Kids just follow through on that feeling.
Those sweets that are out of reach and look so tempting? That toy their sibling’s playing with and they can’t have? Those feelings bubble up, and suddenly mom, dad or current caregiver finds themselves on a tantrum receiving end. They’re not just the result of being unable to do physical things, either.
Because emotional events the toddler can’t cope with can also trigger an emotional outburst. The world has a lot of things to take in, and this is especially true for a developing child. Sometimes it’s just all so overwhelming and comes out as a tantrum. Even too much stimulation can get the ball (and the bawl) rolling.
With so many myths and misunderstandings swirling around tantrums, it’s no surprise that parents can misinterpret the situation. Sometimes, though, this also leads to unhelpful responses on their part. Hey, even dedicated caregivers make mistakes, they’re only human! Thankfully, Ph.D. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, author of The Tantrum Survival Guide, has some advice for you there.
Firstly, Hershberg says you shouldn’t trivialize your child’s emotions. “When we are with our children,” she wrote, “it’s important that we don’t laugh – that we take their reactions and experiences seriously.” And responding with words like “ridiculous,” “irrational” and “unreasonable” won’t sway a toddler who doesn’t use adult logic, either. Though it might make them more upset.
Speaking of upset, Hershberg said telling children “how to feel” is another thing best avoided. “This is a great general rule (to apply to toddlers, preschoolers, and the rest of humankind), and is particularly relevant for tantrums,” she elaborated. It makes kids feel they should be able to change their emotions easily. And as we know, not even adults can do that… much.
Another mistake among parents is being untruthful to their child to head tantrums off at the pass. “Are there times when a little fib is OK?” Hershberg wrote. “Yes. Once in a while, you can, of course, tell your toddler or preschooler that there are no more cookies, even though you know there’s another unopened box in the pantry.”
“But telling your child that the iPad is broken (when you just don’t want him to use it) or that the toy store is closed (when you just don’t want to stop there on the way home) doesn’t do your child, or you, any favors,” Hershberg added. So honesty is often the best policy.
But tantrums are a little less mystifying these days thanks to neuroscience. According to R. Douglas Fields, Ph.D. and author of Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain, it’s a primal reaction. He explains it all goes back to the Stone Age, when we were fast food for bigger, meaner things.
Fields explained more to the Fatherly website in 2016. “It’s part of the brain’s threat detection mechanism,” he said. “The key concept is this anger and aggression exists to fight, and exists for violence because we need it.” But whereas adults can manage this anger properly, children can’t.
Fields identified nine main causes that tip people over the edge of reason and push them to fight, which he called L.I.F.E.M.O.R.T.S. And they all involve protecting something, whether it’s yourself, your belongings or the people you love. But the most common cause of anger among toddlers comes from their own systems trying to protect them from themselves.
If you’re wondering what part of the brain causes this, Fields says it’s actually two different areas working together. Firstly, the amygdala – which controls how you feel and interpret emotions – kicks in. Unfortunately a child’s amygdala isn’t the finely-tuned piece of kit it will hopefully become. It can misinterpret the least little thing as a threat.
So the amygdala passes this faulty information along to the brain’s hypothalamus, almost like a game of Chinese whispers. The hypothalamus controls cycles in your body, like temperature and, importantly, emotional response. And since it thinks the body’s in danger (thanks, amygdala) it responds in kind. The result is an angry, weeping mess.
This is part of the reason why you can’t use logic on a child mid-tantrum. And Carol Weitzman, the co-director of the Autism Spectrum Centre at Boston Children’s Hospital, agreed. In November 2020 she told the Independent, “When you try to reason with a child, you’re appealing to a part of the brain that isn’t fully functioning.”
And without the ability to keep emotions in-check, toddlers have a tendency to boil over like a cooking pot. At least, that’s how child and adolescent psychiatrist, Mary Margaret Gleason, described tantrums. “In these moments, the intensity of the feeling overwhelms the child’s ability to organize it,” she told the Independent. “So the feelings get stronger than the lid.”
There are other scientists studying tantrums, too. In 2011 the journal Emotion published a study by neurologists Michael Potegal and James A. Green. “We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear that has a high-quality wireless microphone sewn into it,” Green told Morning Edition. “Parents put this onesie on the child and press a go button.”
After pouring over hundreds of tantrum recordings (that’s taking one for the team) the scientists noticed a pattern. Potegal revealed, “Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together. Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort — and these also hang together.”
The study discovered something interesting. Previous theories gave tantrums two stages: anger at the beginning and sadness at the end. The Potegal-Green study presented evidence to the contrary. Potegal explained, “The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect. In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.”
By now you’re probably thinking that since tantrums are an instinctive reaction, there’s no way to deal with them. Well, that’s not actually the case. Although meltdowns are still inevitable, this new research has actually revealed various ways that can help disarm the situation. Let’s start with methods of prevention.
If you feel an eruption might be imminent, you can try sensory soothing. Any calming toy or activity could help the child – hugging a teddy bear tightly, or playing with silly putty, for example. It might not stop the tantrum completely, but your little ball of emotion will have more control. And control even extends to calming yourself down.
Remember how Phelan stated that kids can sense their caregiver’s emotions? Well several experts concur, although how is a bit of an enigma. One theory is that it involves the scarcely-researched mirror neurons which help control emotion by observing others. In essence, being around calmer people could make you calmer.
Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explained to the Independent, “Your child may not just do what you’re doing, but feel what you’re feeling.” It also helps to use your tone of voice and body language to display calm while your toddler’s mid-meltdown. Adding some eye contact and maybe a physical touch (depending on the child) is a great diffusing tactic.
According to senior research scientist Katie Rosanbalm, once the child subconsciously realizes there’s no danger, tantrums fizzle out. “The amygdala stops sending out the alarm, which causes the stress response cascade to cease,” she told the Independent. Just let your child know you’re there for them, and that it’s ok to feel upset or angry.
Fields told Fatherly that you shouldn’t pester children experiencing meltdowns. “Another part of the brain is raging and taking control of all the behavior right now. What you have to do is wait it out, they have to calm down, and once they will calm down, then you can begin to intervene and to help them solve the problem.”
Plus it’s important to realize that how you respond to a child’s tantrum will affect them in later life. It’s basically teaching them how to deal with their own emotions. Fields elaborated, “You can control the environment to the extent possible and provide a nurturing environment. But you can also help build the circuitry.”
“Fundamentally, circuitry is inhibiting the snap response,” the doctor continued. “And much of the same circuitry is involved in inhibiting other behaviors.” In layman’s terms, you can teach your child self-control by introducing outlets for their emotions. And coincidentally for someone called Fields, one thing he suggested is to get your child involved in sport.
“One of the greatest benefits of sports is self-control under stress,” Fields explained to Fatherly. “So many L.I.F.E.M.O.R.T.S. triggers are triggered in competition, so parents should really take advantage of that.” As for controlling your own tantrum-related emotions, Potegal advises observing them from a scientific angle. They can help you learn more about your child.
“When we’re walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum,” Potegal described, “I comment on the child’s technique. [I] mutter to my family, ‘Good data,’ and they all laugh.” Maybe leave the laughing part out though. You don’t want your child to turn into the Incredible Hulk.