Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums? - Baby Chick

Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums?

ParentingUpdated March 28, 2022

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist


Imagine standing in line at the grocery store, and suddenly, someone with one item in his hand jumps in front of you just as you are about to step up to the register. You are furious. But then you see that he is buying Benadryl, and he turns and tells you that his mother was just stung by a bee in the parking lot and has an allergic reaction. Suddenly you understand his actions, and you are no longer annoyed.

Why do toddlers have tantrums?

If only we had a better understanding of why toddlers do the things they do, we might be able to deal with their tantrums and ill behavior with more patience and understanding. The first concept that all parents need to recognize is that toddlers are not acting out on purpose. Usually, their behavior is in response to a lack of coping skills and a general lack of experience in handling certain situations.

An important part of a child’s brain in charge of self-regulation is not developed yet. Your toddler relies on the less-mature, more primal parts of her brain, the emotion centers. During the toddler years, the emotional and impulsive part of the brain is simply in control. It is the most readily available part of the brain to deal with whatever happens in the child’s world. Your toddler’s brain still has a lot of development to do, and during those difficult situations, that new brain is doing the best it can with what it has.

Understanding toddler brain development

Let’s take a closer look at the development of your toddler’s brain. As a baby, the brain’s first part to develop is the brainstem, which comprises the hindbrain and part of the midbrain. This is at the base of the skull, and it controls involuntary responses such as reflexes, breathing, and heart rate.

The midbrain is the second part of the brain to develop during the first and second years. The midbrain consists of the limbic system, including the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. These areas of the brain are responsible for controlling thirst, hunger, sleep, moods, perceiving and reacting to emotions, stress reactions, and creating new memories.

The last part of the brain to develop is the forebrain, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, problem-solving, planning, decision making, logic, and reasoning. This part of the brain continues to develop through childhood and adolescence. Recent studies find that the higher-thinking, logic centers of the brain are not fully developed until closer to age twenty-five! Think about all the decisions you made in your early twenties . . . does this make sense to you?

Toddlers have an undeveloped emotional center.

So, we have several factors at play here. First of all, our toddlers are working with the emotional center as the dominant part of their brain. Don’t forget that that emotional center is still not fully developed. The amygdala works very hard to perceive and analyze different emotions from other people, and the immature amygdala sometimes gets it wrong. It is then working hard to transfer that information into expressed emotion, and it can easily over or under-react.

Toddlers don’t have much life experience.

The second factor that we need to consider is life experience. Babies and young children learn through experience and repetition. Really, how much life experience and opportunity for repetition does a two-year-old have? It may seem like you told him to stop climbing on furniture a hundred times, but he is still learning that message, processing your level of emotion regarding it, and here is where the third factor comes in . . . his need for independence.

Toddlers have a desire for independence.

For the past two years, he has been eyeing the furniture, playground equipment, and staircase without the independence or physical skills to climb and explore. For the past two years, she has been (mostly) accepting whatever you decided to put in her mouth. Now she will assert her own opinions. For the past two years, he has been sitting in the shopping cart watching all the interesting, colorful items from a distance, and now he can touch them, hold them, ask for them, and react when he does not get them.

This desire for independence has been welling up, and now it is spilling over without all of the skills to manage it. Children typically have an explosion in their physical skills during the toddler years, while speech, language, and cognitive (thinking) skills struggle to catch up. This is when your child is running, and he doesn’t even know why. Or climbing, and he doesn’t even know where to. And begging for items that he doesn’t even know what they are. A lot is going on in that little growing brain!

How to not flip your lid as a parent of a toddler

How does a toddler parent take all of this information and manage these little people? We need to start by remembering that they are not little adults. They do not have the skills that we have to handle the situations they are in. They need us to control their environment, steer them in the right direction, keep them safe, distract them when necessary, and most importantly, have never-ending patience. Easier said than done. Here are some tips to help you not flip your lid when your toddler flips his lid:

  1. Provide a safe and predictable environment with routines, structure, and boundaries, so he knows what to expect and has stability.
  2. Be affectionate and nurturing. She is figuring things out, and your support goes a long way.
  3. Help her solve problems on her own. Resist the urge to fix everything for her. As you support her in problem-solving, she learns independence, self-esteem, and important life skills.
  4. Show him how to resolve conflict healthily and practice taking turns and sharing through games and activities. Praise him when he does these things on his own. Recognize how difficult it can be.
  5. Help her understand her feelings by talking things through.
  6. Encourage empathy by helping him see others’ points of view.
  7. Encourage playdates and playgroups to practice social interaction.

The best way to keep your toddlers calm is by staying calm yourself. Remember, as soon as you engage in a debate with a toddler, you have already lost. Stay calm, focused, and patient and remember, their reactions are based on emotions, and they usually don’t have the skills to think and act logically. Now that you know what is going on in that little brain, it may be easier to be more understanding and help your toddler navigate these challenging years.

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