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Tantrum
First Years Jan 7, 2020
5 Minutes

Toddler tantrums: a good thing?! The science says so!

Tantrums are a fact of early life. They can be infuriating for everyone involved. But, did you know that they are actually a positive part of a toddler’s brain development?! Yep… 

Whilst we are not a parenting resource, we are interested in anything that has to do with health and development. Particularly when understanding it better can help us deal with it! 

We take a quick look at what is going on with tantrums and the science behind them. Hopefully by understanding them a bit better you’ll feel slightly better when your little one is having his/her next melt down! (Let’s face it, we need all the help we can get!) 

Ok, so starting with the basics: 

When we’re born, we are born with billions of brain cells. However, you are not born with many brain cell connections. These form over time and actually form based on your experiences. 

Our resident psychotherapist Christophe Sauerwein talks more about the formation of neural connectivity based on experience in this article click here. However, what you need to know is that a tantrum (as an emotional experience) is part of the formation of these connections. 

So tantrums are a positive part of brain development?!

Tantrums are a normal part of development which typically start on average towards the start of the second year as the brain reaches a certain point of development (2) and taper off before the 4th year. In fact between 30-36 months old 91% of toddlers are having regular tantrums. Good luck! 

Most of us rationally know that a toddler temper tantrum is because they feel their needs or wants are not being met in some way. Even worse when they feel they can’t communicate this. Pretty frustrating. 

What exactly happens during a tantrum? 

The strong emotions that go alongside a temper tantrum trigger a hormonal release of intense stress hormones. As an adult, the rational part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) can hopefully (!) regulate strong emotions that come from the emotional part of the brain (limbic). For a toddler this is not yet fully developed. This will happen over time and as they learn and the brain develops. Having a tantrum is part of this growth and learning. 

So, a toddler who is having an extreme emotional melt-down is not ‘bad’ – they just do not have the tools to manage and regulate these emotions yet. Some research has shown that toddler anguish can even evoke physical pain. Poor things. 

So, how does the brain develop to cope and regulate these emotions? 

As a toddler has more tantrums, more of the connections between brain cells form. The formation of these can hopefully allow a child to properly manage stress and emotions later in life. 

There has been a lot of work over the years on attachment theory in brain development of children. Click here for more. What we do know is that appropriate handling of temper tantrums can be a powerful tool in helping a child develop these all important coping mechanisms to deal with stress in later life. (1) 

So, how can we help? 

Once again we are not a parenting platform and tend to try and stay away from opinions on what a parent ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t do’. In this case though, there is a biochemical part to play here which is good to understand and be aware of. 

Regulating the ‘tantrum’ hormones: 

A child is born with a fully formed ‘alarm’ in the brain which will react to perceived danger (The Amygdala). This is a survival mechanism activated from birth. Any stressful situation incites the ‘fight or flight’ response which triggers the release of hormones like Cortisol. This happens in adults. Click here for more. It also happens in a toddler melt-down. 

The power of hugs: 

As above, a toddler does not have the tools to cope with this rush of emotions. So, as parents or care-givers we need to help them along. We have also seen in many of the theories over the last few decades all about the power of touch (1). Physical touch and hugs can elicit a hormonal release of something called Oxytocin which calms the stress response in the body. So, although sometimes you may not feel like giving a screaming toddler a hug (!) approaching a tantrum in a calm and kind manner can be one of the best ways. 

Keeping healthy boundaries:

This does not mean that you have to give in to what the toddler wants (ice cream before dinner anyone?!). Standing your ground and showing firm, consistent and stable boundaries is also key for positive development. It can however be done in a gentle and calm way. The more calm you are, the better. 

The power of tantrum distraction: 

Distraction is another powerful tool. Once again looking at the science behind this. We have seen a number of studies showing benefits when it comes to emotional regulation when a child uses distraction. In fact, one study showed a particular benefit when children were directly encouraged to use distraction. (3)

One important caveat! 

We tend stay away from ‘parenting’ and think there is far too much judgement of ourselves and of others when it comes to raising small people. We also want to remind that no one handles things perfectly, least of all when it comes to tantrums! So, this is simply some info to think about and digest. A tool. We can’t handle it perfectly every time so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t handle a toddler melt down exactly as you’d like all the time.

Bottom line: when tantrums are managed carefully, they are a positive tool for enabling your child to develop positive ways to cope with emotional regulation and brain development. 

Understanding that your child is not yet equipped to regulate emotion and helping them to deal with this via gentle touch and distraction are both powerful tools for long term development. So, next time your child has a big one, remind yourself that it’s all good! Good luck!

References:

1) Schore AN: Early interpersonal neurobiology assessment of attachment and autistic spectrum disorders: Frontiers in Psychology: 2014; 5; 1049.  

2) Smith CL, Diaz A, Day KL, Bell MA: Infant Frontal Electorencephalogram Asymmetry and Negative Emotional Reactivity as Predictors of Toddlerhood Effortful Control: Journal of Child Psychology: Feb 2016.  

3) Davis E, Quinones-Camacho L, Buss KA: The effects of distraction and reappraisal on children’s parasympathetic regulation of sadness and fear: Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Feb 2016.  

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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.

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