Is there a Mom alive who has not been the target of a temper tantrum? Is there anyone who has not seen one? This article is the beginning or a series of three articles on the subject. This, the first one, will describe and help us better understand what temper tantrums are all about. Stepping back from emotional situations can give us perspective and help to find ways to deal more effectively with unpleasantness.
Introduction to Temper Tantrums
Most parents share the common frustration of the Terrible Twos. The first child to go through this stage is often the worst (so it seems) — partly because we don’t know what to expect and because with the next child it already looks familiar. In this first part of a three-part article, I want to help you understand the "normality" of temper tantrums. Why do so many children go through this stage? Next week’s article will look at what parents can do to anticipate and possibly help prevent or moderate temper tantrums. The last will offer some suggestions about what you can do when the child has a temper tantrum regardless of the preventative techniques you use. We’ll also consider what can be done post-tantrum. What can you learn from each temper tantrum that might be useful for the next episode? Additionally, this last post will include some suggestions about how and when you might want to seek professional help. The article will also offer book suggestions for those of you who would like to have a reference handy.
One of the first problems that pop up around temper tantrums is the inclination for parents to take it personally. I sometimes wonder if there is a special place in the parent brain that automatically judges oneself when our child misbehaves. It is so easy to do so and so many parents are self-condemning as the result of temper tantrums.
Why shouldn’t you take it personally? One reason is that you are probably not responsible for the tantrum. Good parents have kids who behavior miserably (it sometimes works the other way around, too). Those of you who know about the Domino Effect will understand that your child’s behavior belongs in the Life Domino. This means you have no control over another person’s (your child’s) behavior. Neither girls nor boys generally have more tantrums than their opposite gender. We also know that over 50% of young children have an average of one temper tantrum a week.
Another part of the parent brain gets us to think that the behavior of our children is a reflection on our parenting skills. This is why talking with other parents of young children can be so refreshing. We then know we are not alone. Not only do their kids throw tantrums but the parents also think and feel like you do. One of the most productive things a parent of a young child can do is to expect their child will have temper tantrums. It begins somewhere in the first year and can last up until year five. We know that almost three-quarters of children between the ages of 1½ and five years have tantrums.
So why do young children even have temper tantrums? Life would be so much more pleasant if they just wouldn’t upset us so with their tantrums. When you think about it, it makes sense that young children should have temper tantrums. Frustration is one of the common human experiences and it begins to be felt at an early age, around one or two. What a coincidence.
As babies’ brains begin to develop a sense of independence, this new found awareness sometimes outpaces the necessary skills for independence. Not only is your baby trying to convert a brain concept into a physical action (putting on her own socks) but her brain also knows when it is not being done right. So we have a conflict between the part of the brain that knows what it wants to do with the part of the brain that doesn’t know how to do it. Have you as an adult ever had this experience? Of course.
What do adults do when they are frustrated? Cussing is a common reaction. Screaming, throwing something, just giving up or asking for help are common adult reactions. Your baby can do all of these except those that need advanced verbal skills. Can you imagine what it would be like if, when you were frustrated, you did not have the verbal skills to tell someone what you wanted? You already know that your toddler’s vocabulary is quite limited. But did you know that when a toddler speaks to his parent, the parent may only understand what is being said about half the time. How often has a tantrum erupted when you didn’t understand what your child was telling you she wants? Your child wants something from you and when she doesn’t get it, WHAM!
Frustration often occurs when we know that we have certain choices in a situation but have few skills to implement one or more of those choices. Another part of the growing baby’s brain is an awareness of choices but without the necessary skills to make the choices happen. The needs of newborns and infants are quite simple: food, sleep, and having someone clean them up. Getting their basic physical needs met keeps them happy. By the age of two these needs become more plentiful and diverse. It's around this time that one part of their brain runs ahead of another part of their brain.
Some professionals have called the Terrible Twos by another name: First Adolescence. Becoming a teenager is another time when new awareness often proceeds faster than the capacity to make good decisions. Teenagers have a new sense of being independent (again) but become frustrated and angry when many of their new choices are confined by adults in their environment.
Understanding this growth pattern in your young child can be a time for you to recognize that your child is in a transition stage of healthy childhood development. We often see our tantrum prone children as too determined, too self-centered, too sensitive, and maybe even too creative. When you think about these traits they are actually good ones. They can potentially be used for living a productive and happy life as an adult. It is your job as a parent to begin to help your child channel these traits into new behaviors that your child can more effectively use as she gets older.
Some parents wonder if children are purposeful in their tantrums. "Are they doing this to just bug me?" The brains of toddlers are not developed enough for them to be plotting how they can get back at you. They are too young to even enjoy watching you lose it. This only happens when the teen hormones kick in. A toddler's brain interacts with the world (and you) in a very simple, non-adult way. There is also a good likelihood that neither you nor your child enjoy these difficult moments.
Psychologists who study young children tell us that temper tantrums change over time — even though for many parents a temper tantrum is a temper tantrum is a temper tantrum. As we’ve mentioned above, two-year olds begin to recognize they can interact to change their limited environment. When this recognition clashes with a two-old’s skills temper tantrums often result.
By age three, language begins to become less simple and less limited. During this year, parents report that tantrums begin to subside in frequency and when they do occur they may be less intense. Unfortunately, this newly developing brain might also have learned that temper tantrums can be an extremely effective tool for getting something from adults, such as attention.
It is common for four-year olds to become quite skilled at interacting with their world with less adult help. In addition to their advanced physical skills they also have a much larger vocabulary. They may have also learned some rudimentary interpersonal skills such as the appropriate expression of anger, compromising and the beginnings of empathy. With this said, children as old as six can still have temper tantrums for a variety of reasons.
I hope this gives you some sense of what temper tantrums might be like from your child’s experiential vantage point. As awful as tantrums are, they are a natural part of a child’s growing up during a time when he is not being quite ready for the complexities of the surrounding world.
Next Friday, you will find an article that is more practical — strategies you can use to minimize the possibility of temper tantrums happening.