Why Tantrums Aren’t a Bad Thing (and How Parents Around the Globe Cope)

Whether your little one is in the terrible twos, or maybe is a threenager (or that beloved third scenario where the terrible twos have hit around age one. . .), there’s sure to be meltdowns happening. And these are inconsistent, some days will be blissful, other days pure rage.

Every child’s temperament is different, as are their needs. Their biggest needs by far at this point in life are attention and interaction– these are equal in importance to food, water, and shelter/clothing needs. The more positive interactions (by the number, each day), the more positive a baby, then toddler, then child comes to expect the world to be; which is why positive interactions are so vital starting day one.  

In the context of tantrums, what this means is that to have positive brain development and an overall positive (happy) child and later, a well-adjusted adult, it doesn’t actually matter if they have very few or many tantrums on any given day, week, month, or year. What matters is that they are receiving positive interactions at much higher volume. For parents with fussier toddlers, this means “getting ahead” of the tantrum by intentionally creating a positive environment- more art, more time outside and running around, maybe more attention, more time with friends or playing with pets, etc. The goal in handling tantrums isn’t to eliminate them (we will explain why not), but rather to provide a positive backdrop for which to return as soon as possible. 

So let’s look at what a tantrum actually is. It’s basically a huge chemical cocktail of stress hormones being released in order to come back to equilibrium. Tantrums look messy, but the truth is that the brain of a toddler hasn’t developed the links between emotional and verbal centers (located in an area called the prefrontal cortex) in order to say how they feel. What is there is a threat detection mechanism that triggers anger and aggression (necessary when there’s a real threat, but the brain- even in adults- does not differentiate between what is real and what is perceived).They can only, very authentically and in real time, feel how they feel. So they do.  

If it’s the primary role of a parent/caretaker to make sure the toddler’s needs are met, meeting their needs during a tantrum is actually fairly easy. Given a small bit of time to express the emotion and then regroup, your toddler will bounce into a new emotional state fairly quickly! As you already know, appealing to something logical does not work- this is because of the undeveloped neural circuitry between emotions/words and also because your usual cuddly baby has detected a threat and feels a need to defend him/herself. That feeling far outweighs anything you’re saying to him or her! 

This begs a question. Why would your toddler feel threatened in the first place? Turns out, it’s typically because they were stopped from doing an action that they wanted to do. Extraordinarily familiar scenario isn’t it? And also, you can see why tantrums are just going to be part of the experience for a little while. In other words, there’s no need to get the tantrums to stop (often done with discipline and/or distraction). 

What’s reassuring in one sense is perplexing in another- now that we know pretty much for sure that tantrums are here for a phase, what do we do about it? There’s some interesting answers from parents around the globe as their little threat detectors go off just like yours! 

According to Inuit best practice, the golden rule of parenting is that “adults should never scold or shout at children.” Their reasoning is that when children are upset, all yelling at or disciplining them will do is teach them act in the same way- with force and/or a measure of violence. This is a slippery slope when the science says pretty definitively that anger is one of the main tantrum triggers! Combining anger with violence and providing examples of how is not the learning experience we want to give. Instead, the Inuit prefer storytelling following a particularly emotional time. This encourages the verbal connection that is developing in the toddler so that when they are older children and adults and are asked how they feel or felt, they are surprisingly articulate! The Inuit as a culture prioritizes low levels of conflict; and this method of parenting is both a reflection of this mentality and a means to perpetuate it.  

Another notable example comes from the Ju/‘hoansi, a culture of about 30,000 in the deserts of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola that is internationally recognized for their peaceful practices. Their strategy is helpful for while the child is tantrum-ing: they simply ignore it and go about whatever it was they were doing! This is particularly helpful in group settings when you can continue a conversation and everyone can reinforce just by virtue of continuity that there is no real threat (because again, telling your child this really goes nowhere). When you are alone with your child, an adjustment would be telling them “I can see you’re upset- I will be over here finishing the dishes where I can still see you, and when you’re ready, you’re welcome to come over for (a hug, a snack, a talk, etc.).” And just go about your business. If the tantrum involves your child throwing things or causing a real safety hazard, just remove any necessary items or the child and place them in a different spot but don’t use this as a disciplinary method. Anything they’re throwing or breaking is coming from a place of feeling threatened and angry, so just move them until they realize they are not threatened and can come back to themselves. 

This ignoring technique is also preferred by Mapuche mothers in the Central Andes and Igbo mothers in Nigeria, and these are cultures that are similarly recognized for prioritizing peace on a collective level. 

The science is still out about a universal best practice, but generally, aside from “sandwiching” temper tantrums with overall positive experiences/environment, there’s a couple things you can do. When the tantrum is occurring, because it is a threat/anger/aggression response, get down to their level when addressing them or consider sitting down and doing an activity beside them if you prefer to not acknowledge the tantrum. This is visible evidence to the brain that there is no threat (especially if you were the one who told them to stop and that triggered the tantrum); it helps to re-establish a point of trust/connection and deactivate the fight/flight/freeze response. The other thing to do is, as you likely tell them, YOU take a deep breath. You don’t have to know what to say all the time, simply activate your own desire to empathize with them and take a deep breath to calm yourself down as you want them to. Modeling this behavior works particularly well over time and gives a powerful tool as your child forms the emotions-words connection in the brain!  

One interesting observation about African cultures as a whole compared to European (and reasonably other Western) cultures is that the severity of tantrums appears to be less in the former. A proposed reason for this is that African mothers generally breastfeed children for more than double the amount of time that many European mothers. The WHO now recommends breastfeeding until a minimum of age 2. This may not always be possible or desired by a parent, especially a mother, but could provide part of the positive experience (e.g. comfort and attention) that envelop a toddler’s experiences so that overall, they grow up knowing that the world and the people around them are at least in the broadest sense positive. 

Another interesting observation comes from a therapist, Gillian Bridge, who took notice of British children’s propensity of throwing tantrums in pubs. This, she notes, is a mismatch of expectation (from parents) and ability (of their children). So in evaluating where your toddler is at in terms of throwing tantrums, be mindful of what your expectations are! This doesn’t mean keeping strictly child-centric events for them and separating from multi-age groups. It mostly means avoiding overstimulation, making short outings to places that may be in that overly stimulating category, respecting nap times and needs for food, and adjusting activities during times of transition (maybe a new baby or pet has joined your household, maybe you have moved, or maybe potty training is beginning). Nothing is perfect, the key to this is just making the observation about your child and judgment about their readiness to participate in various activities.  

Albert Einstein noted (and we are paraphrasing) that one of the most important questions we need to answer is if the universe is a friendly place or not. Who knew your toddler has been bringing out your inner philosopher in their maybe not very deep- but nonetheless extremely authentic- expressions that we know as tantrums? Nothing that is a learning lesson is bad, so we think you’re fully equipped to go forth and conquer this phase now that you have some really solid scientific, cultural, and philosophical understandings. Keep your sense of humor on hand and keep your eyes open as we learn more and more about the little bundles of emotion that are our toddlers.