How Temper Tantrums Work

By: Cristen Conger

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.