Here’s Why Your Toddler Is Throwing a Tantrum
She’s eaten. She napped. Her pull-up is clean. But you dared to give her the pink cup instead of the blue one (fool!), and now you could grill cheese off the heat of her meltdown. Here, we break down the biggest causes of upset for little kids.
Kids with sensory processing disorders may get particularly overwhelmed by loud noises (surround-sound movies, bathroom hand driers), crowds (raucous playgrounds) and general chaos ("Happy birthday to"...not you guys!). But even kids without these issues can short-circuit when faced with such stimuli. Your pediatrician or an occupational therapist can guide you toward any necessary intervention. And you can also take steps to minimize your kid’s discomfort, from noise-canceling headphones to RSVP-ing "no thanks" to events you know won’t be his cup of tea.
Blame it on his brain
The prefrontal cortex, which controls emotional self-regulation and social behavior, only begins to mature between ages three and six. Remembering this may help you more objectively observe the meltdown (He just kicked the dog's water dish all over the rug...hmmm...how fascinating), and not take it quite so personally.
She feels out of control
A tantrum happens when a child is grappling with emotions she cannot regulate—anger and anxiety being chief among them, according to the Child Mind Institute. Being denied a pre-dinner cookie (especially when Grandma just gave her one yesterday) may violate her sense of justice. And a stressful situation (being left with a sitter when she really wants mom) can trigger a fight-or-flight response. To restore equilibrium, try giving her a choice ("Would you like your cookie after dinner or after your bath?") and distracting her with an engaging activity. (Look! Glitter slime!)
You’re asking too many questions
The key to ending a tantrum, researchers say, is getting him past the peak of his anger. How? By ignoring the tantrum; no questions, no words of comfort, no reprimands. Any attention (negative or positive) will only fuel the fire. "It's difficult for [tantruming children] to process information," writes University of Minnesota pediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Potegal. "And to respond to a question that the parent is asking them may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with." Once he's over the blind rage phase and into the sadness phase, he will likely reach out for—and accept—comfort.
She’s under the weather
Sometimes ear infections present without a fever, or even a runny nose. Erupting two-year molars can be a (literal) pain, interrupting sleep, messing with eating and bringing out that most notorious of beasts: the hangry toddler. So if higher-than-usual irritability levels last for more than a day or two, maybe bring her to the pediatrician. Also, FYI: Researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine found that "Less than 10 percent of young children have a daily tantrum." Monthly is more typical. So if you're dealing with this drama daily, and the tantrums seem to come out of the blue (not, say, when you're asking her to stop playing and get in the bath), it could be your cue to look deeper.
Um, he can’t talk
When a small child’s language has not yet caught up with his exploding intelligence and need to express himself, frustration is inevitable. Exhibit A: the plot of Knuffle Bunny. Your best bet? To ride out the storm before you try to fix it.