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Thinking about Thinking

Thoughts on thinking about thinking from the Raising Thinkers Series


Raising Thinkers: Emotional Intelligence starts with Toddler Tantrums and You

Tremaine du Preez

Science shows us how to teach our children out of their tantrums with long lasting effects.

At 3 and 33 we experience exactly the same emotions. Except, by 33 we’ve learnt how not to react to them like we did at 3. Some people seem to cope better with strong emotions than others. Those people had better teachers and better lessons in emotional intelligence from a younger age. 

When I work with executives to help them make better decisions and think more critically about information, at least a third of the time is spent on the role of emotions in decision making. Yup, ONE THIRD of our time is spent understanding the hormones (particularly stress hormones) and the emotions they generate.

What has any of this got to do with your tiny toddler’s tantrums?  Absolutely everything. 

Our toddler’s stress hormones first become visible to us when they are around 18 months to 2 years old. Exactly when the dreaded tantrums start.  They’re hard to miss with the biting, kicking and screaming about not being allowed a chocolate milk before dinner. It feels like the end of the world to them but it really is the beginning of a very important phase of their life. How they learn to deal with stress now sets the foundation for their ability to deal with what life throws at them later on.

Blame their tools

Your child’s tantrums results from an underdeveloped brain and an overflow of stress hormones. Something (brother snatches their toy, mommy says no to them, confusion, hunger,  etc.) sparks a rush of these stress hormones through their little system. Our body produces the same hormones when we are thrown into stressful situations but our brain has developed coping mechanisms to manage our response. Thank goodness. So we don’t fling ourselves across the boardroom table yelling at our boss that we hate her as tears flood our contorted face, we only daydream about it.   

The part of our brain to thank is our prefrontal cortex. It helps us predict/imagine the consequences of our responses and use logic to figure out how to get what we want instead. But it only begins to develop at around 4 years old and matures fully between 21 and 25 years old (sooner for women than men). The tantrum is not a calculated move to embarrass you or make you feel like a rotten parent. Your child is not physically capable of being spiteful or devious, just yet.  Fortunately, the average tantrum peaks after about 1 minute and is usually done by 3 minutes, although it feels much longer. 

Science to the rescue

Imagine you are in a raging mood about some injustice. Perhaps someone stole the parking space that you waited 15 minutes for? Then the thief turns around and shouts at you to calm down. Does this help? Hell no, it just further provokes you, does’t it? Now imagine feeling this way without having the ability to think through the results of your actions? Even calmly asking questions of your tantrumming toddler can enrage them further. Their body has to stop producing stress hormones in order for their anger to subside. They are not in a position to calm themselves down on cue, like you and I. Which is why is seems like they don’t want to be calmed down at all.

How you help your toddler deal with this natural phase of their childhood will create their first memories of stress and hence the neural pathways of how to cope with it in their developing prefrontal cortex. Every tantrum is a learning experience. Really. Firstly for you to gather data on your child’s tantrum triggers; time of day, level of stimulation, hunger, tiredness etc. Secondly, to try various techniques to help your toddler shorten their tantrums to just a few seconds and then develop alternative coping mechanisms. Here are some ideas on how to do this:

1. Distract and disarm

To stop production of a flight of flight (stress) hormone the source of the provocation needs to be removed. This does not mean that you give in to your child’s demands. You are still the parent responsible for behaviour boundaries. Rewarding a tantrum causes more behavioural issues than the tantrum itself. No, try distracting your toddler with an interesting object that you keep for just such occasions. It can be anything really, even their favourite song (I’m thinking the Frozen theme song) played on your phone. Remove them from the place that sparked the tantrum, like the candy isle or playgroup. Better still, avoid candy and toy isles all together. 

2. Don’t engage them on their terms

Sit calmly with them and let them know that you are there and ready to talk to them or give them a big hug but only when they are calm enough. Reasoning doesn’t work yet, that will start at about 5 years old, around the time when tantrums disappear. 

Tantrums tend to start with explosive anger that then gives way to the accompanying feelings of sadness. A sad child will reach out for comfort and then forget that anything happened at all. Try shortening the anger peak with a consequence that your child understands. “We can’t go to the park until you are calm again,” or, “I’m counting to 5, if you aren’t calm by then we are going home and they’ll be no TV today.” Say it once and then disengage. 

3. Tantrum training 

Tantrums in supermarkets or in the car can still seem manageable but what about that long haul flight? When everyone else is trying to sleep as you pace the isle with a wailing toddler trying to escape from your arms? You’ll know pretty early if your child is prone to tantrums. If so, let them happen in all the safe places where time-out is an option. Every time the anger begins, get out your notepad and make notes. What were the triggers? What did your toddler want? What calmed him down, how long did the episode last? After 3 or 4 tantrums, you’ll be an expert and will have found useful information about what turns this behaviour on and off. And importantly, this scientific exploration of your child’s seemingly illogical behaviour will stop you from generating stress hormones and getting angry, too.

Gina Mireault, Ph.D, reminds us that “Kids this age think magically, not logically. Events that are ordinary to us are confusing and scary to them. Confusion about the world is a great cause of anxiety to our toddlers.” Anxiety can easily provoke your little angel into a big tantrum for which there seems no logical explanation.

One question remains though. Will any of these work on your boss who seems to control his temper only slightly better than your tiny toddler? If only her parents had tried to tame her tantrums 30 years ago.


Are Temper Tantrums a Fight/Flight Response?  Psychology Today, Dec 2012, by Joshua Gowin, Ph.D. in You, Illuminated

The Science of Parenting: How today's brain research can help you raise happy, emotionally balanced children by Margot Sunderland.