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Toddlers and Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Prevent Them

Toddlers and Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Prevent Them

Tantrum-free toddlers do exist! Photo Credit: Christy Martin Photography

Tantrum-free toddlers do exist! Photo Credit: Christy Martin Photography

Tantrums are part of childhood, and all parents will have to deal with them at some point. And while many articles have good advice, most of them seem to lack important information regarding tantrums: Specifically, why do tantrums happen? and how can  tantrums be prevented?

The fact that this information is not easy to find really surprised me! It’s like if I had a headache and looked to the internet for help, and all I found was “take some aspirin and sleep”. Sure, taking an aspiring might help me, but what if I had a headache from dehydration? Would it not be more useful to know why I had the headache to begin with so that I can better treat it and hopefully prevent it from happening next time? This is how I view the issue of tantrums. There is in fact reasons why tantrums happen, and understanding this might help you prevent them. So question 1.....

Why do tantrums happen?

Though I certainly am running the risk of being overly simplistic, tantrums occur for 2 reasons: Poor emotional regulation and statistical learning. 

Emotional Regulation

It is incredibly challenging for young children to regulate their emotions. In other words, when children experience an emotion, they are not very good at controlling or adjusting to  the intensity of the emotion they feel. So when you say to your two-year-old that he or she can’t have that candy,  they literally do not know how to deal with the surge of disappointment and sadness he or she is feeling at the moment. I'm sure those of you who crave chick-fil-a on Sunday can relate!

In fact, it isn’t until around 3-4 years of age that children begin to better manage their emotions. Although parents can certainly help children develop emotion regulation skills, the child still needs their prefrontal cortex (PFC) to develop a bit more so that they have the tools necessary to successfully regulate emotions. Why, you ask? Because the PFC is the part of the brain that helps us reason and inhibit initial reactions (aka helps your child to not cry uncontrollably because he or she can’t have candy). The prefrontal cortex takes a long time to fully develop (until we are around 25 or so). Is some of the questionable behavior that you.. uh….I mean your Friends did when they were in college making more sense now? Blame that PFC! Unfortunately, those of us that are older than 26 no longer have a scapegoat.

So if your child is younger than 4 and throws tantrums from time to time, you can relax and know that this is okay. Meltdowns are indeed part of the developmental process of a young child (notice the emphasis in young). However, if your child throws tantrums consistently and/or they are older than 3, then they probably have learned that throwing tantrums is the way to get what they want. Which brings me to reason #2 of why tantrums occur….

Statistical Learning (aka, someone gave-in one too many times).

Statistical learning is the ability to recognize patterns and probabilities of events occurring  in our environment. Some researchers propose that statistical learning is the way children are able to learn so remarkably fast! For example, one of the ways children learn language is by “calculating” the probability of certain letters and vowels co-occurring (Abi letter combinations are more likely to happen than xmp combinations). 

Because children use statistical learning to understand and learn about the world, it is no surprise that they are able to calculate the probability of getting what they want if they behave in a certain way. Now, I don’t mean children are actually calculating anything (unless your child is a genius). But they can understand and recognize patterns in your behavior, or form associations fairly quickly (i.e.,  when I do this, this usually happens). This allows them to predict, based on their past experience, how you will react when they throw a tantrum. If they got a positive response, as in they got what they wanted, then chances are they will use tantrums as a tool to get what they want. This type of conclusion and behavior simply means  your child is smart…because in general, doing things that bring about positive outcomes is in fact the smart thing to do!

That is why one of the things moms should always keep in mind when parenting is that, though child behavior is based on a lot of factors, humans will do things that give us good outcomes and avoid things that give us undesired outcomes. Of course, this is not to say that human behavior is simply guided by patterns or associations. We have goals, experiences and beliefs that guide our behavior as well. Case in point, when we see a cake, we do not automatically just eat all of it because it tastes good (well, for the most part). Our goals and past experiences kick in and we don’t eat the whole cake because, for example, we might have the goal of not eating as much sugar.

But remember the part of the brain that  is responsible for planning, reasoning, and controlling our initial responses (aka the prefrontal cortex)? The PFC is still developing in young children, which is what allows them to consider their goals in their decision-making process, as well as the power to inhibit their initial reactions. Therefore, young children will most likely rely on the associations they have learned because it is easier, and it is what humans are really good at!

Now, some children are better than others at handling their emotions or being driven by their associations. Temperament and experiences plays a big part in how children behave! But in general, tantrums are guided by the two reasons mentioned above.

Now that we understand why tantrums happen, we can discuss how to prevent them!

Photo Credit: Christy Martin Photography

Photo Credit: Christy Martin Photography

How to prevent tantrums

1)      Model good emotional regulation behavior. In a previous article, I talked about how imitation is one of the biggest tools children use to learn social skills. Children watch you and take cues from you as to how they should behave in certain scenarios. Therefore, showing children how to respond when you yourself are stressed or disappointed is a good start. Even better, talking to your child through their own emotions, as well as showing them how to respond to their emotions, is a great way of teaching emotional regulation. For example, if your child wants chocolate and begins to be upset when you say no, you can try something like “I know you really want this, and it makes you sad that you cannot have any right now. Maybe after dinner we can have a little piece.” Labeling their emotions and acknowledging their feelings will comfort them and help them learn to cope with their emotions.

2)      Make sure your child is rested and fed before going out into the public. I don’t know about you, but I need my sleep! We all do. Moreover, I’m sure you have all experienced what it is like to be Hangry as well. When we are tired or hungry, we don’t usually behave in an optimal way, do we? Same with kids! Regulating their emotions is already hard enough…. And it will be even harder to not have a complete meltdown if they don’t have the energy to do so. So if you want to prevent a potential tantrum, make sure your child is well-rested and fed if you can help it before you go to places that tend to produce tantrums. This will make it way easier for your child to regulate his/her emotions if need be.

3)      The most important one….Explain to your child what your expectations are. Children are way smarter than we might think. Although their little brain is still developing and they have a million things yet to learn, they are fast learners, and will try to understand what you want/what is expected of them. We are born into a world of values, and children want to adhere to those values. My own research shows that by 2, children will try to behave in a way that aligns with the expectations or values you set before them. Therefore, communicating what you expect from the child, or what is going to happen during your outing, can prepare them. For example, if you are going to the grocery store, you can tell your child “we are going to the store to buy some food, but we are not going to buy any candy today. So when we go through the aisle, we aren’t going to cry, right? We are going to remember that we already ate and if we eat candy, our tummy will hurt!” Be as gentle as possible when you tell this to your child. Look them in the eye and make sure you are expressive when you speak to them. Repeat to them what is going to happen and what you expect of them before you leave, on the way there, and when you get there.  This will prepare them for what is to come.

If all fails…

If your child still happens to throw a tantrum, take a deep breath and remember why your child is behaving this way. While you should not give-in to their demands, showing them compassion by acknowledging how they are feeling will go a long way.

Summing things up…

1.       Tantrums occur for two reasons: 1) young children lack the capacity to regulate their own emotions and 2) children are so smart,  they learn what to do to get what they want fairly quickly.

2.       Preventing tantrums by modeling good behavior, ensuring they have had good rest and good food before leaving the house, and telling your child your expectations will set your child up for tantrum-less outings.

3.       Tantrums are part of development! Realizing why and how your child might throw tantrums will equip you to better deal with them if/when time comes.

4.       Be sure to exercise compassion when your child does throw a tantrum. Understand where they are coming from, and that both you and your child are learning together!

Think someone else might find this helpful or have other tips you have found helpful? Share by clicking on the links below or leaving a comment!

Works Cited

Carlson, S. M., & Wang, T. S. (2007). Inhibitory control and emotion regulation in preschool children. Cognitive Development22(4), 489-510.

Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual review of psychology51(1), 665-697.

Fuster, J. M. (2001). The prefrontal cortex—an update: time is of the essence. Neuron, 30(2), 319-333.

Kirkham NZ1, Slemmer JA, Johnson SP. ( 2002). Visual statistical learning in infancy: evidence for a domain general learning mechanism.

Romberg AR, Saffran JR. (2010). Statistical learning and language acquisition. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews Cognitive science. 1(6):906-914. doi:10.1002/wcs.78.

Teffer, K., & Semendeferi, K. (2012). Human prefrontal cortex: evolution, development, and pathology. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 195, pp. 191-218). Elsevier.

Disclaimer: While we mostly report robust scientific findings that have been replicated, science is a constantly evolving field, meaning new findings might support or contradict previous findings. Scientists may also vary in their interpretation of findings. We thus encourage parents to be critical of all information before they choose to apply it or dismiss it.


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