Ask Alistair

Dear Alistair,
My 4-year-old daughter regularly throws Temper Tantrums, often for almost completely inexplicable reasons! Please explain why toddlers have temper tantrums and how I might curtail this horrid behaviour.AMCtantrums

You have probably wondered whether you are the worst mother ever. You aren’t alone if you have! So, how and why do young children have such emotional explosions? Well, research suggests that children from about 18 months to 4 years are simply hardwired to misbehave (i.e. explode) when feeling angry or frustrated. And that means you are often not to blame.

The part of the brain that sits directly behind the eyebrows, called the prefrontal cortex (PFC), provides answers to the “why” question. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and controls social behaviour. It is the last area of the brain to develop; it has only just begun to mature at age 4. This immaturity is what enables the acquisition of language. It appears likely that the underdeveloped PFC is what allows young children to master a new language much more easily than adults. Simply put, our children’s irrational displays of emotion may be an evolutionary trade-off for the sake of human communication.
The other factor at play in the toddler/preschooler’s often difficult behaviour is stress. Children this age are not yet able to think logically. Events that are ordinary to older children (and adults) are confusing and scary to them, leaving young children feeling somewhat uncertain and anxious on a daily basis. These feelings cause their bodies to release the stress hormone cortisol, the “fight or flight” (or tantrum) hormone. Cortisol increases blood pressure, speeds up breathing rates, and often leads to unclear thinking. It causes young children to “explode” at the slightest provocation.
The next time your child has a tantrum, you need to ask yourself “What function does this behaviour serve?” If your child is looking for attention or a “tangible” (e.g. another biscuit), the best response is to ignore her or to say ‘I can see you are feeling angry with me. I’m sorry you’re upset. When you calm down, I’ll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.’ This is usually much easier said than done, especially when your child says they hate you and/or want to kill you, etc. This approach, however, offers support and sympathy while still showing your child how to regulate her emotions.
It is different with an “escape” tantrum. For example, if your child is going crazy because she doesn’t want to do whatever it is you want her to do, (e.g. sit at the table), ignoring her gives her what she wants. Instead, tell her that if she doesn’t come to the table in five seconds, you’re going to come and fetch her. Your child will see that she still has to sit at the table, and may even have an additional consequence for her unacceptable behaviour.
Remember, just your child can quickly slip into anger and sadness, so she can slip out of them. Her immature PFC allows her to move on without dwelling on past hurts. So enjoy that post-tantrum cuddle, (and prepare yourself for the next round).