Understanding the Complete Science Behind Children’s Tantrums

It’s not uncommon for young children to throw tantrums and experience meltdowns. What’s important to understand is that such behavior isn’t always intentionally acting out. This is a psychological response that stems from the brain’s system for detecting threats. That’s why it’s crucial for parents to understand the psychology behind the tantrum and mitigate it by creating a sense of safety.

A cartoon representing a kid having a tantrum
What Causes Tantrums

Neuroscientist, R. Douglas Fields, explains that a tantrum brings into play two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The first is responsible for processing emotions, and the latter controls unconscious functions, such as the temperature or heart rate. When a child begins to throw a tantrum about being alone in their room at night, the response comes from the amygdala detecting a threat and the hypothalamus causing an extreme reaction. Tense muscles, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat can accompany this response.

An image of a brain
Managing the Emotions and Reactions

During tantrums, it’s exceedingly difficult to talk to the child and have them listen and understand. Such reasoning skills depend on the prefrontal cortex which doesn’t fully develop until adulthood. That is why impulse control is not very developed in children and the more dominant parts of the brain can easily take over. It’s, therefore, necessary for the adult to de-escalate their own frustration and approach the child calmly. Research is being done on a group of brain cells called Mirror Neurons which trigger a similar response in someone observing another’s feelings. This explains how a parent’s reaction and feelings can affect their children.

A crying toddler
Validating the Child’s Feelings

The goal is to create a safe and calm space, sending cues to the amygdala that there is no danger. Once the child starts calming down and the prefrontal cortex switches back on, the parent can encourage the child to create a story about what happened and understand what led to it. It’s important to make sure the child understands that everyone is ok and still close as ever after such tantrums.

Mother hugging her little boy