How Temper Tantrums Work


Temper tantrums are a basic fact of 2-year-old life.
Temper tantrums are a basic fact of 2-year-old life.
Katrina Wittkamp/Getty Images

For a cringe-inducing glimpse into the bizarre extremes of human emotional behavior produced in the most primitive parts of the brain, look no farther than a toddler temper tantrum. Seemingly out of nowhere, 2-year-old tots splotch with anger, go rigid with rage and even launch themselves into walls, furniture and the floor [source: Potegal and Davidson]. Tantrums aren't quiet affairs, either; along with the physical histrionics come inconsolable sobs, screams and self-pitying whines -- made all the more excruciating for parents and caregivers when the meltdowns occur in public.

To moms and dads, temper tantrums can be an embarrassment, a supposedly poor reflection on their parenting skills, attracting accusations of spoiling and lack of discipline. But as you'll learn later in this article, exercising authority in the eye of those emotional storms may only exacerbate the unpleasantness and result in longer and more frequent fits [source: Kazdin]. In reality, temper tantrums are not-so-savory byproducts of kids being kids, and they're so common between the ages of 1 and 3 years old that the phase spawned a nickname: the "terrible twos."

What tantrum-addled parents might not realize is that it would be more of a statistical abnormality for their toddlers to not go on these tirades. Like knee-high Napoleons on the warpath, between 50 and 80 percent of 2- and 3-year-old boys and girls experience at least one temper tantrum per week, and 20 percent boil over every day [source: Cooke]. One study from the University of Minnesota calculated an even higher incidence rate, with 91 percent of children between 30 and 36 months old spiraling into tantrums on a weekly basis [source: Potegal and Davidson].

On the bright side, just like temper tantrums eventually blow over -- and often more quickly than expected -- so do those terrible twos. The unpredictable fits largely fade away by the time kids are 4 or 5 years old [source: Kaneshiro]. That said, extreme and persistent tantrums may indicate underlying behavioral issues or environmental stressors negatively affecting how a young child negotiates the world around him or her, and may require closer attention or clinical treatment. But in the case of a hungry half-pint who reaches a breaking point in the cereal aisle, the outburst is most likely to the result of a part of the brain going through a growth spurt.

Anatomy of a Temper Tantrum

Despite their limited verbal skills, toddlers understand more than adults give them credit for.
Despite their limited verbal skills, toddlers understand more than adults give them credit for.
Chris Stein/Getty Images

For adults dealing with toddler temper tantrums, the fits may seem to last an eternity in the moment, like a never-ending nightmare. Once the screams quiet down and the kicking and thrashing subside, however, probably only a few minutes have passed. University of Minnesota pediatric neurologist and temper tantrum specialist Michael Potegal estimates the average duration of these toddler tornadoes at just 3 minutes [source: Onderko]. Not only that, in as little as 10 minutes, the self-tortured tot will likely have forgotten all about whatever provoked the kicking and screaming to begin with and go back about his or her business.

To chart the typical tantrum arc from initial outburst to calm, Potegal asked parents in a research pool to outfit their toddlers in microphone-rigged onesies to record their temper tantrums. Analyzing the ear-piercing data, Potegal and his associates found a common pattern of initial anger overlapping with sadness [source: Vedantam]. Those emotions then manifest in a three-stage tantrum that begins with yelling and screaming, transitions into physical actions, such as kicking or biting, and then fades into whimpering and whining. During more explosive outbursts, toddlers can, in just a few minutes, work themselves into such a state that they scream loudly and forcibly enough to rupture blood capillaries in their cheeks and induce vomiting [source: Potegal and Davidson]. Interestingly, though, Potegal's tantrum studies also indicated that if children skip over the vocal phase and immediately jump to stomping around or throwing themselves on the floor, the tantrums likely won't last as long [source: Potegal, Kosorok and Davidson].

And all of those Oscar-worthy theatrics take place for what? Not wanting to put on a coat, perhaps, or protesting the presence of reviled vegetables on dinner plates? Certainly, those minor offenses may trigger an episode, but the root causes of temper tantrums generally relate to two conflicting factors: external environmental conditions and internal neurological maturation.

Social behavior, impulse control and emotional regulation -- all of which fly out the window during temper tantrums -- are regulated in the human brain in a region of gray matter behind the forehead called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) [source: Berger]. It turns out that being 2 years old can be so downright terrible because the PFC doesn't begin to mature until about age 4 [source: Onderko]. Meanwhile, toddlers' language comprehension and vocabulary don't match up either; little ones can understand a lot of conversation happening around them, but they're unable to converse back, which can be frustrating since they literally can't get their points across when a tantrum is about to tip off. When such conflicts arise, the stress hormone cortisol also peaks in the bloodstream, priming toddlers' fight or flight survival response, and since the PFC isn't fit enough to put the emotional brakes on, the 2-year-olds' tops blow. For that reason, as verbal skills improve, and the PFC sprouts new neurons at about 4 and 5 years of age, tantrums taper off [source: Pendley].

Until those neurological processes begin naturally treating tantrums, it is possible for parents to manage toddlers' trying tirades. And contrary to conventional logic, the best way to handle a temper tantrum may be to simply walk away.

Taming a Temper Tantrum

When tantrums strike, stay calm and parent on.
When tantrums strike, stay calm and parent on.
Julie Toy/Getty Images

Since scientists haven't puzzled out how to prompt a 2-year-old's prefrontal cortex to grow like some sort of magical beanstalk and effectively nip temper tantrums in the bud, managing the emotional outbursts can be tricky -- but not impossible. A first step to avoiding meltdowns is establishing a consistent and attentive daily routine for young children [source: Cooke]. Often, temper tantrums flare from a basic desire for attention, whether it's for feeding, sleeping or simply seeking contact and interaction; reliable schedules help reassure them that those needs will be met. Also, since toddlers are naturally inclined to test boundaries and yearn for independence, talking and walking on their own, many experts also advise offering them empowering choices [source: Kaneshiro]. For instance, if a tyke doesn't relish putting on his shoes in the morning, ask him whether he'd like to wear sneakers or boots to distract him from the undesirable task.

Inevitably, a temper tantrum will flare, and when it does, parents' primary motivation shouldn't be to talk children out of these massive mood swings. Above all, it's up to moms and dads to stay calm. Often, in fact, the quickest and most effective route toward dissolving a temper tantrum is to ignore it entirely [source: Hoecker]. The impulse to immediately soothe a thrashing child and silence his or her screams may counterproductively translate to positive reinforcement in the toddler's brain [source: Hoecker]. Moreover, merely muffling a temper tantrum may distract adults from noticing underlying conditions, including hearing or vision impairment or learning disabilities, which aggravate the fits [source: Pendley]. Ignoring a tantrum might present more of a challenge in public, but as long as children aren't physically harming themselves or others, parents should turn their backs -- but not blind eyes -- to the freak-out.

Punishing temper tantrums in the moment may also serve as a double-edged sword, only prompting more unpleasant behavior in the end. Reprimanding a toddler in the throes of a fit doesn't teach the child healthier alternatives. Instead, child development experts advise correcting tantrum patterns during moments of calm, role-playing with boys and girls while modeling appropriate ways to make requests, as well as express displeasure [source: Wang]. By telling toddlers precisely what is expected of them in simple language they can grasp (i.e. brush your teeth before bed because it's good for you), rather than moralizing the situation (i.e. don't pitch a fit when it's time to brush your teeth), they're more likely to correct their tantrum-throwing ways more quickly [source: Kazdin].

Then, when the children put those behavioral guidelines into action, even incrementally, caregivers should step up the praise and rewards. If, say, a child starts up a tantrum but ultimately represses it, a parent should acknowledge and incentivize the progress [source: Kazdin]. But reinforcement doesn't just extend to treats and toys; parents should explain to their child specifically what was good about their behavior and also provide loving, affectionate touch.

At the same time, tantrum-taming tips like these should be taken with a grain of salt, because some boys and girls will simply be more manageable than others. With that in mind, excessive temper tantrums in some cases may benefit from clinical, in addition to parental, attention.

Temper Tantrums: When to Seek Help

When do tantrums demand medical attention?
When do tantrums demand medical attention?
ULTRA.F/Getty Images

Temper tantrums are a normal part of child development, which generally last from 1 to 3 years old. Child psychologists begin to pay closer attention when the frequency and duration of the fits escalate. Certainly, some boys and girls will have more topsy-turvy weeks than others, but three or more temper tantrums per day that last more than 15 minutes could qualify as disordered behavior [source: Cooke]. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also advises parents and other adults to watch out for the following red flags [source: Kaneshiro]:

  • Temper tantrums increase, rather than decrease, after age 4
  • Children deliberately attempt to injure themselves or others, or destroy property during tantrums.
  • Children hold their breath until fainting during a tantrum
  • Children exhibit other signs of mental disturbance, such as recurring nightmares, refusal to potty train and intensive separation anxiety

In those situations, the AAP recommends seeking medical help since severe temper tantrums have been linked to psychopathology and antisocial behavior as a child matures. Studies have demonstrated that tantrum habits of children with mood disorders and depression differ from those of their healthy peers as well. For instance, a 2007 comparison of temper tantrums among 279 preschoolers, published in the journal Pediatrics, found healthy kids were much less likely to grow violent, self-injurious, destructive or verbally combative during temper tantrums [source: Belden, Thomson and Luby]. That said, paranoid parents beware: An isolated incidence of violence or aggression shouldn't set off alarm bells. Just because a kid rips the head off a Barbie doll or bites a sibling or a friend during a tirade, that doesn't mean you should immediately head for the doctor's office. It isn't uncommon for typical, healthy kids to tread into maladaptive territory, with about 20 percent of mentally stable preschoolers doing so periodically [source: Belden, Thomson and Luby].

In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which could exacerbate parental and medical consternation regarding temper tantrums. An addition to the tome called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder essentially classifies temper tantrums in children older than 6 years old as a mental illness [source: Gold]. The newly defined disorder also is considered a clinical distinction from pediatric bipolar disorder, which notably underwent a 40-fold spike in diagnoses from 1995 to 2003 [source: Insel].

Partially due to that rise in pediatric bipolarity, some pediatricians and mental health professionals worry that the new DSM-5 classification may spark a rash of knee-jerk psychiatric labeling and antipsychotic medication prescriptions that could ultimately do more mental health harm than good [source: Else]. Before rushing off to the pharmacy, parents may want to consider a more nuanced approached to addressing persistent temper tantrums and consider whether psychological issues related to children's reactions to stressful pregnancies, separation anxieties, and difficulties with self-regulation and control may be prompting the abnormal outbursts [source: Gold].

Teenage Temper Tantrums

Get ready for round two of temper tantrums when puberty strikes.
Get ready for round two of temper tantrums when puberty strikes.
Photodisc/Getty Images

Just as the toddler years are punctuated by the "terrible twos," adolescence comes with unwieldy baggage in the form of teenage angst. Sure, surging hormones and high school crushes factor in to the mood swings that accompany puberty. But just like toddlers' temper tantrums, unforeseen fits in the teen years likely trace back to growth spurts happening in the brain, right back in the same spot that brewed those toddler tempests years prior: the prefrontal cortex.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the last brain region to fully mature, undergoing significant development from ages 4 to 18. Initial PFC development during childhood tends to calm temper tantrum behavior, as the fresh neural connections help kids manage their social behavior and actions. Then, at about age 11 or 12 -- thanks to prompting from puberty hormones -- a second round of remodeling takes place in the PFC, temporarily scrambling adolescents' and teens' social and emotional management skills [source: Megan]. Toss that in with their desire for autonomy and independence, a la toddlers, and the combination is a recipe for teenage temper tantrums.

Neurologists at the University of San Diego scanned the brains of people between 10 and 22 years old and noticed a certain functionality blip between ages 11 and 18. During that window, the speed with which participants identified emotions indicated by facial expressions dropped by up to 20 percent, slowly rebounding to normal levels at about 18 years of age [source: Graham-Rowe]. The researchers suspect the inhibited emotional monitoring is a byproduct of rewiring activity in the PFC that mediates social behavior. The teenage brain compensates for the PFC-under-construction by relying more on the anger-stoking amygdala to process external emotional cues, leaving teens feeling frustrated that parents just don't understand [source: Megan]. Adding fuel to that fire, the PFC also is the neurological seat of impulse control, which explains why teenagers are more apt to pursue riskier behaviors and test boundaries as well [source: Megan].

Parents dealing with tempestuous teens might benefit from hearkening back to their toddler-rearing days and remembering that the moodiness and angst are temporary, biologically driven processes. If, however, teenagers' tantrums and talking back begin to negatively impact their families or social or academic lives, it could be a sign of oppositional defiant disorder, which affects between 1 and 16 percent of adolescents [source: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry]. The persistent disorder shares some temper tantrum signs, including arguing, anger and resentfulness, which can be resolved with parental intervention, talk therapy and medications, if necessary [source: A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia]. But more often than not, whether dealing with a toddler or a teenager, temper tantrums are simply indicators that kids are growing up -- kicking and screaming, from time to time, along the way.

Author's Note: How Temper Tantrums Work

When I began researching How Temper Tantrums Work, I was initially worried that my brain -- the prefrontal cortex, to be precise -- might play an evil trick on me and balk at the prospect of writing this article. Instead of dutifully typing away, I imagined myself kicking and screaming at my desk, which probably wouldn't have ended well, even if the average temper tantrum only lasts about 3 minutes. Thankfully, my adult prefrontal cortex is in good enough working order to keep my social behavior in check.

Toddlers aren't so lucky, nor are the parents who catch evil glances when their tots pitch fits in supermarkets and elsewhere. Temper tantrums in children tend to elicit judgment about parenting skills, when the bizarre behavior really just boils down to prefrontal cortex development in the brain. In fact, the "terrible twos" are a common, normal part of childhood that fade away at about 4 years of age, once a neural growth spurt helps kids manage their needs and keep their attitudes in check. For parents, I hope this article can offer some useful tips as well as a sigh of relief that temper tantrums probably aren't their fault. And for non-parents like me, learning about the neurological underpinnings of these royal fits should stimulate the part of our brains that registers parental sympathy the next time we witness a toddler meltdown in action.

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