Taming the Temper Tantrum

Every mom has experienced them, and if you’re not at that stage yet…just wait! The stroke of the clock that ushers in your child’s toddler years also starts the ruthless era of the temper tantrum. Patty Onderko from Parenting.com helped us figure out the rationale behind your child’s emotional explosions.

Good Lord, can’t they just behave? Well, it turns out, no, they can’t just behave. According to research, kids spanning the ages of 18 months to four years are practically hardwired to misbehave. In fact, their outbursts are a very normal response to anger and frustration, so you shouldn’t name yourself the worst mother ever if your tot freaks out every now and again.

It all becomes more clear when you take a look at the brain. A small, mushy section right behind the eyebrows, called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), is responsible for important body functions like emotion regulation and control of social behavior. This is the last area of the noggin to develop–it doesn’t even begin to mature until around age four!

This, however, is actually a useful thing, developmentally speaking. New research done by the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the late maturation of the PFC is closely related to the acquisition of language in children. In fact, the underdeveloped PFC is what allows kids to learn a new language so much faster than adults. (In fact, it’s still easier for kids to learn a new language until puberty!) So it looks like parents trade the occasional flip-out for the ability to communicate via speech. Seems pretty fair to me!

Now that you know the physiology behind it, it’s time to educate yourself on how toddlers use that brain of theirs! “Kids this age think magically, not logically,” explains Dr. Gina Mireault, a professor of psychology at Vermont’s Johnson State College. “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.”

Touché. It would be terrifying to be that uninformed about how the world works! When the body feels anxious, it releases cortisol, commonly known an the “fight or flight” hormone, which increases blood pressure and speeds up breathing. Knowing this enables us adults to understand how a kid’s thinking could be hazy in a nervous or agitated situation. The heightened state can make children spin out at the flip of a switch.

Michael Potegal, Ph.D., a pediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, has spent years studying tantrums and has come up with some advice for how to handle them (what a saint!).

First on the list of your responses needs to be a question: “What purpose does this tantrum serve?” There are a few explanations.

If it’s something tangible your child’s after (toy, food, etc.), ignore the bad behavior. Caving in will only encourage future meltdowns. But you must remember to keep your emotional composure as well–“If you get just as mad and irrational as your child, it’s like throwing gas on a fire,” Potegal says.

Don’t fall for the Sadness Trap either, as Potegal calls it. “When you comfort a child in the middle of a tantrum, you reinforce the behavior. Instead, say ‘I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.’”

You need to reorganize your thinking if your child’s having an “escape tantrum”, in which he’s freaking out because he doesn’t want to do something. In this case, get ready to get dirty. Don’t ignore him because that’s giving him exactly what he wants–to not do what you’re asking.

Instead, tell your child that if he doesn’t do what you’re asking (to put on his shoes) in five seconds, you’ll do it for him. After his five seconds are up (he won’t believe you the first few times), gently force his shoes on by putting your hands on his and helping him undo the velcro, etc. If he starts getting violent, continue your battle (without hurting the child, of course) and inform him that he’ll be getting a time out after you’re through. This strategy allows the child to realize that not only does he still have to wear the shoes, but that he also has an additional consequence for his inappropriate behavior.

One glimmer of hope that Onderko offers is this: Just as they can start a freakout and totally catch you by surprise, kids also calm down just as quickly. Potegal’s career of studying kids teaches us that a tantrum usually lasts a surprisingly short three minutes–because the PFC is underdeveloped, your toddler can be back to smiling in no time without sulking on previous emotional pain or anxiety.