Toddler Tantrums

Time Out

By Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman

How to handle your child’s temper tantrums is a question that never seems to lose its popularity. The good news is, you’re not alone. In fact, temper tantrums are a normal part of the development process. Like most child-rearing practices, handling temper tantrums is a matter of trial and error. They can happen for many different reasons and at different ages. Although it may feel as though your child has a master plan to embarrass you, this is likely not the case. It is important to remember that from a neuro-cognitive standpoint, toddlers have not developed the more sophisticated areas of their brain that warrant higher order thinking and reasoning processes. Rather, they are functioning on a more “cause and effect” level.

To complicate matters, although they are in the process of developing language, they still struggle in expressing their feelings and emotions. For example, rather than asking mom why the square block won’t fit into the round hole, a toddler (whose brain is still developing) may become frustrated and hit or throw the toy. However, nevertheless, toddlers can be quite perceptive and can catch on quickly as to what works and what does not work; remember, they are active learners in their environment.

In an effort to understand this “cause and effect” relationship, let’s consider the familiar case of little “Bobby” who is kicking and screaming in the grocery store because he spots a piece of candy. After repeated attempts to calm the child, it only appears to be getting worse. Due to shear embarrassment, mom reluctantly buys it, stating to the child that this is the last time. In this situation, “Bobby” is not aware that he is embarrassing mom or that candy is bad for him. Rather, he simply thinks kicking and screaming with getting a desirable response from mommy.

Another common pitfall is the case where parents believe they are doing the right thing by not “giving in” to their child when they are having a tantrum. Instead, they choose to yell or raise their voices out of mere frustration. One would think that a negative reaction from mom or dad would eliminate the behavior. However, despite its negative tone, the child is still getting some sort of reaction from you, which is serving as a reinforcer to their behavior. Not “giving in” is good, but don’t spoil it by unnecessary yelling. In fact, the latter situation may in fact exacerbate the tantrums because it is likely agitating your toddler even more.

So, why do toddler’s have tantrums? Well, for a variety of reasons. As I mentioned before, children at this age are still developing from both a cognitive and emotional perspective. Therefore, tantrums are most likely to happen when toddlers are hungry, fatigue or over-stimulated. Or, perhaps, your child has linked such “bad” behavior with getting what they want from mom or dad. Although there is no magic solution, parents can take steps toward preventing and/or reducing the frequency of tantrums and hopefully, end them altogether.

Go to the next page for tips on how to prevent toddler tantrums…