Anyone who interacts with children is sooner or later going to have to deal with the dreaded tantrum. Tantrums can be an occasional annoyance, or they can completely uproot your life.
What are tantrums?
“Tantrum” is a generic word that describes the behavioral fits young children often throw. During a tantrum, a child may throw themselves on the floor, hit, kick, scream, throw things, and generally act like a child possessed. Tantrums occur when a child’s emotions overwhelm their ability to cope, sending them into full blown meltdown mode.
Why do children throw fits? A look at the different reasons for tantrums
Children throw tantrums for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you told them they couldn’t have something they want. Maybe their food wasn’t cut in precisely the right way. Perhaps a big wind came along and blew away the stick castle they were building. Maybe it’s a day of the week that end with the letter Y. Whatever the specific reasons might be, it all boils down to this: someone or something has thwarted their desires and interfered with their goals.
Children are prone to tantrums because their brain is immature and underdeveloped. You can think of the human brain as being essentially divided up into two competing teams. There are those parts of the brain responsible for emotions, impulses, instincts, and reflexive actions. Scientist commonly refer to these areas as the “lower” brain regions because the are among the oldest, most primitive parts of the brain.
The ‘higher’ brain regions of the outer cortex are the thinking parts of the brain. These areas reason, rationalize, and help inhibit and regulate signals from the lower brain areas. So when you come upon a chocolate cake, your lower brain areas are likely to be screaming at you to dive into it like a ravenous wolf who hasn’t eaten in days. Your higher brain regions are countering this impulse, balancing your core desires with the knowledge you’ve learned about whether this desire is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The two regions are then likely to work out a compromise: “Those extra calories will go straight to my hip, so I’ll limit myself to just one piece.”
Children’s brains are underdeveloped, and the areas that are most immature are precisely those areas involved in impulse control and emotional regulation. This means 3 things as it pertains to tantrums:
A) Once kids get their heart set on something, it’s more difficult for them to let go of this idea.
B) Whenever you thwart their desires, the negative emotions are felt much more deeply, because the areas of the brain responsible for dulling these feelings don’t work as well. They have overactive emotional centers coupled with weaker reasoning and inhibition centers. Thus everyday disappointments can feel like the end of the world to a child, which is precisely why you get such an oversized reaction to seemingly trivial things.
C) Children have a harder time regulating their own emotions. In fact, they largely rely on adults to help maintain an emotional equilibrium (which is why emotional neglect is so detrimental to kids). They need adults to help reign in their out-of-control emotions, calming the storm and returning their brain to a restive state. Which is why they instinctively seek out the arms of a caregiver whenever they’re upset.
Unfortunately, most tantrums are a reaction to a caregiver whose thwarted their desires. So kids are stuck with all that emotion and no support to control it. Which is why your 4-year-old is now face first on the supermarket floor while screaming as though a lion were tearing them limb from limb.
Do children throw tantrums on purpose?
Younger children who throw tantrums usually have little control over what they are doing. The despair they feel is genuine, and it overwhelms their ability to cope, leading to rather ridiculous displays of emotion.
Older children may have developed the habit as a way to manipulate parents into giving them what they want. However, to say it’s “on purpose” or intentionally manipulative isn’t really accurate, either. It’s more of an automatic reflex they’ve learned to resort to because it works.
How common are tantrums?
All children throw tantrums, but some are more prone to this behavior than others. During the prime tantrum ages of 2-4, it’s relatively normal for a child to throw a tantrum every day. The frequency decreases with age, and you can also reduce the frequency through how you respond.
Do children outgrow tantrums?
Yes. Tantrums coincide with a normal stage in development, and most children will eventually outgrow them. Their susceptibility to tantrums diminishes as their brain matures and they become better at self-regulation. However, if your child is prone to excessive tantrums, you probably don’t want to sit around waiting for them to grow out of it. The tips we offer later on and in our e-book Positive Parenting will help reduce the frequency.
At what age should tantrums stop? How old is too old for children to be throwing tantrums?
Tantrums are normal for kids between the ages of 1 and 6, with a peak between the ages of 1 1/2 and 3 1/2. By the time kids enter the grade school years, the tendency for tantrums should have greatly diminished. That’s not to say an older child will never have one (even adults are prone to the occasional tantrum of sorts), but they shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. If tantrums are still common among a child in elementary school, it’s usually a sign of 1 of 2 things: 1) A child has developmental disabilities that need to be looked into, or more likely, 2) You’re responding to tantrums in a way that inadvertently encourages children to continue this behavior.