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Toddlers And Tantrums

Well, you did ask and all...

The key to toddler crying is understanding brain development.  I don't have my reference book with me - it's out to a friend, so this won't be as label specific as I'd like, but the basic info is the same, I just don't have the precise names and descriptions of it on hand.  Therefore, I'm speaking in broad sweeps and generalisations!

The human brain takes approx 7 years to lay down all the right tissue.  This isn't 7 years to 'mature' - that's approx 25 years.  That's 7 years for all the right bits to grow in and start talking to itself coherently.   

Until the bits (there are three brains in your human brain) are all in place, you cannot rationalise properly.  You can learn rote arguments, but you cannot think them through and come to conclusions for yourself; your brain isn't geared up for it yet.  You can mimic rationalisation - which is what we spend a lot of time teaching our kids to do - but you can't actually genuinely put it all together for yourself.

Your brain is like a sandwich,  The two outer layers are the higher functions of inteligence, and the lower functions of basic survival.   Inbetween is a filling layer, which send info from one side to the other, and back again.  If you woke up tomorrow and found a naked, blood covered man in a ski mask, with an axe in his hand in your bedroom, both sides of your brain would want to know who is in charge - the 'I'll attack that man first, or maybe try and talk it out and see if intelligence will get me through this' side or the "RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN" side.  The inbetween bit is called the amygdala.

The amygdala layer would help make the decision - for instance, if the run run run side wants you to run, the amygdala will shut out your intelligent side, and allow the RUN RUN side to flood you with adreneline and out the window you would go, without noticing the glass or the fall.  If intelligence decided it could deal with this, it would tell your amygdala to shut down the lower brain and back off: allow all your effort to go into thinking and talking - not running.  You often hear this equation reffered to as 'Flight or Fight'.

In a baby growing into a toddler into a young child, you have two types of 'toddler tantrum'.  They are brain development dependant.  Which one is happening, is determined by what brain functions have grown, and what connections between the three layers of brain are made.  Margot Sunderland, head honcho type person and all round wonderful brainy person in this field, refers to the two types as 'toddler' tantrums and 'Little Nero' tantrums.    

A 'toddler' tantrum is a hormone based response in the toddler brain, that sweeps through their entire brain and body, and cannot be controlled by the child.  It is a physiological function of distress, and the child is unable to control it, or recover from it, without help.

A 'Little Nero' tantrum can start off as a hormone based response, but the child has develped enough upper brain function to control both the trigger, and the response.  It can choose to lose itself in the tantrum, and extend it, or it can self calm and work on bringing itself out of it.  the child can also choose to mimic a tantrum in order to control a parent: hence the term 'Little Nero".

This is the kicker - pay attention.

A child has to be about 5 years old before the second type  - the Little Nero - is possible.  Up until then, the brain chemistry required to self-calm simply is not in existence.  It hasn't been grown yet.  All 'temper' tantrums before about the age of 5 are not 'temper' at all - they are the older equivalent of the distress crying in the younger baby.

This might sound nuts - but think about it.  Think about all the other things you acept about toddlers and how well they can function!  Think about when a child's long term memory starts - when it can begin to recall things that happened to it - that's approx 3 years old.  Has a child had a brain before 3?  Clearly!  Has it been able to use it's intelligence before then?  Obviously, or we have spent a hell of a lot of money buying useless toys and books!  Can it think before then?  Doh!  'Course it can - but it cannot order and store and fetch information until that point.  So you can see that a walking talking thinking re-acting child might look as if it was 'clever' - and it is, but it is not a full grown brain, with full grown functions.  

So what is happening with a 'toddler tantrum'?

Most toddler tantrums are triggered by anticipation of something: an anticipation that is denied.   The denial sets up feelings of 'loss' that upset the child's brain chemistry.

Babies have grown used to their 'needs' - hunger, cold etc, and have worked them down pat.  They know if they tell you they are hungry or whatever, you will attend to them.  These are direct physiological needs and they respond at the time of the need - I am hungry, feed me.

There comes a point, however, when their horizons and their expectations, and their sense of time, expands.  They see a red blob in the distance, and they are intrigued, and they reach up and their hand moves and it is in their fist!  Miracle!  they begin on the path of wants, not needs.  I want pretty thing, I want hug, I want dog tail.  I want candle flame.  

But the distinction between a want and a need, is not in them: that's quite high level functioning.  You can see they don't need the candle flame.  They can't.  They need candle flame.  Candle flame is fun, candle flame is nice candle flame is..... going away!  Mummy take candle flame away!  Mummy take away my need!  

When this happens, when toddler brain has built up an expectation of something, an antcipation of it, and it doesn't get it, the toddler is plunged into a world of loss and pain.  A huge chemical hormone wave pulses out of the immature brain and floods the toddler's body with distress hormones.  The toddler is powerless to control it - is at its mercy.  It cannot get the inbetween bits to intervene, it cannot reason, it cannot negotiate a safe space to be in in order to calm down.  Only one person can do that - the adult in charge of the toddler.

This is where all the previous holding and consoling comes in, for in an attached toddler, the body is primed to respond postively to your consoling.  If you pick up toddler and calm and shush and rock etc, all the 'good' homrones are released, and the brain and body will start to calm.   There is a battle going on in the brain, and one side is devastated 'loss' hormones, and on the other, calm and settle hormones released by the loving and care you are showering on the child.

This battle, as you all know, is not always equal, and not always rational!  How many times have you picked up or moved a toddler, and have it start into an argument, move into a tantrum - then you've 'twigged' what it wanted - given it to them, and they've thrown it away and carried on crying?  And your mother has stood behind you and gone "Temper!  Dont' let him get away with that?"  And you've felt like throttling your little wonder as you've 'given in' and given the thing to him anyway and he's even angrier!    There's gratitude for you!

Pointless, utterly pointless!  :-)

By this stage, he's not crying because you took the damn thing away, he's crying because he feels so bad and he's angry and YOU AREN'T HELPING ME MUMMY!  HELP ME MUMMY IT FEELS BAD!  DON'T WANT THE STUPID CANDLE WANT TO FEEL GOOD!  Throw candle away.  Push Mummy away.  

Sound familiar?

Toddlers do need boundaries, and they do need to know they are safe.  Safe, however, is not about being told that 'they can't get their own way', it's about a parent trying where reasonable, not to trigger a 'loss' reaction, and if it is triggered, trying to deal with it as that - a chemical reaction.  What the parent can't do is blame the child for the reaction and act as if the child has the power to calm down on its own.  The 'stop it or else' scenario.   Completely useless before 5yo - and then probably completely useless anyway.  For the one thing you should do with a 'Little Nero' when they do arrive, is ignore them!  Not start to negotiate around them.  :-)

So what can we do to stop 'tantrums'?

If you can stop a toddler moving into deep distress, you can often prevent a 'tantrum' triggering.   The 'loss' reactions themselves are unavoidable.  You will need to take the toddler places where he won't want to go, and leave places he wants to stay in.  You can't give him everything that catches his fancy, and, equally, he can't have every toy he sees and wants.   But you can prepare for them, try to distract a toddler out of them, or lessen their impact so they stay at distress and do not trigger into chemical meltdown. 

So the parent has to think ahead, take action, distract, displace, cajole etc, in order to stop the 'tantrum' event happening.  This is hard to do sometimes, as without good communciation skills, you can often have an upset child and you HAVEN'T THE SLIGHTEST CLUE WHAT HE WANTS!!!!!  Physically active, but pre-verbal, is often the most volatile times: because he can't communicate to you what it is that's triggered his 'wants'.  Interestingly, this is one area where baby sign language is coming into its own.  A child who can sign and be understood by the care giver, has less unknown and unknowable 'loss' opportunities happening.

Of course, all parents communicate with their toddlers, and if all things are equal - attentive mother, happy child, then most situations will not escalate into a tantrum.  You can take steps, and begin to negotiate stuff.  We've found with Hugh, 23 months, and not speaking, that if we warn him a good 20 minutes before hand that we are going into the car, we can reduce car seat fussing.  We say 'Car' a few times, tell him we are going 'OUT', say 'car seat' a few times.  He will often go and stand at the front door and wait.  What was triggering aversion was the sudden 'loss' of his playing in the house - if we warned him he was going out, he had time to adjust.

Then, we sometimes still had freak outs about getting in car seat.  At a loss to know what the 'loss' was, we experimented, and found the 'loss' he was reacting to, was the 'loss' of getting into  the car himself.  He enjoyed clambering up into the car, and playing a bit before settling himself into the car seat.  If we picked him up from the door and placed him into the car seat, he 'lost' the anticipated pleasure of doing it himself.

Equally, sometimes he'd scream and cry if we took him out of the car seat into the house.  That was because he loves sitting in the driver's seat in a parked car and playing with the wheel.  If we parked at home,  and picked him up and ran, he'd want back into the car to play.  So I sometimes sit in the car, unlock his car seat belts and let him clambor about when I'm parked it the drive.   At the supermarket, he adores numbers, and can spend a good 20 minutes walking up and down pointing at things.  If I have the time, I let him do it.  If I don't have the time, I strap him on my back and do the shopping at my own pace with him safely tucked up and watching the world go by.  A carried on the back toddler, is not going to fuss the way a strapped in on the buggy ones is - I have no idea why.  But it's true!  If I take Hugh out in a buggy, I have a battle of wills about what he wants to see/do/touch.  On my back, there is no battle.

So I stave off major toddler tantrums by giving him space, and time, to move in and out of the world at his own pace.  Or by taking temptation away and taking complete control - such as tying him up on my back!  Obviously, this isn't always possible, and if he is screaming and kicking, I intervene in other ways to stop his distress becoming a tantrum.  The car seat is the major one, and if I'd had to strap him down when he really don't want it, and he's starting to cry and heading for a tantrum, I lean back and rub his ankle once I'm in the car.  The sheer amount of times I've done this has 'programmed' him to calm down!

So the key thing with tantrums is avoiding them in the first place!  :-)

But what if a 'tantrum' is triggered - what do I do?

Recognise this is an event out of the control of the toddler.  One it's happened, all ability to think and reason is out of the window, and you have to take over and calm them down!  This can be hard, as trying to physically hug a kicking screaming toddler, can make it worse.  You have to judge each situation and act accordingly.

But you have to recognise that you cannot negotiate a child out of a tantrum - you can only negotiate them out of distress to a certain level - but once they are in it, and some toddlers can be in it very quickly, the damage is done: and only you can rescue them.  

Phew, this isn't anywhere nearly as fluent as the other post - nature of the beast.  I'm tired, and want to go off and sleep, and I will correct any major errors tomorrow!  But again - you did ask!   


(And this, of course, is where those nursing tantrums come in.  The expectation of nursing as comfort is immense in a toddler.  He doesn't know you're tired, at the mall, in front of the father in law who hates you.  All he knows is something is driving him to need to nurse, and nursing is the All Powerful Comforter and soother.  And you've taken that away!!!!!!!!!  If you can distract, fair enough, but if it becomes a distress situation - he's become distressed about his main comfort point and YOU'VE TAKEN IT AWAY!!!!!   Bang.  Brain flooded with grief and pain.   And as you're main comfort source is what the tussle is about, you feel if you nurse him now, you've 'giving in'....  so you don't sooth him with the easiest option, and then.... off the cycle goes...on.. and... on...)


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 5th, 2007 02:24 am (UTC)
Thank you. That was amazing...and it cleared a lot up for me. :)
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 5th, 2007 05:05 am (UTC)
This was amazing--do you mind if I post it to my journal to keep it?
Jan. 5th, 2007 03:48 pm (UTC)
Feel free! :-)
Jan. 5th, 2007 08:01 am (UTC)
Well, I feel like a giant flaming arsehole now. FIVE? But, but, but, she sounds so grown up (she really is a phenomenal speaker with a large vocabulary, and so she sounds much more grown up than she is). I am going upstairs to love on my two and a half year old for expecting too much from her. I'm literally crying now. :(
Jan. 5th, 2007 01:45 pm (UTC)
Oh I know! It's shocking, isn't it? I found the information just as mine had started tantrums, and I felt like a complete heel! I did just what you did, started crying and went and hugged him.

When the first couple of tantrums emerged, I felt so annoyed! I think I'd naively thought that my perfectly attached little wonder would't have them, as there would be no 'need'. And then when he did, I automatically went into the pattern of my parents "Oh, we're not having that. Temper temper!" and felt that I'd have to do all that work in letting him know who the boss was. (Sensitively, of course! ;-)

After all, you have all that nagging worry in your mind, that you're wrong and they are right and you have created a spoilt brat by all that wearing and cuddling and comfort. And here's the proof - temper tantrums!

So when I read the book and found out that actuality was that it was a brain growth thing, and all toddlers have them and THEY COULDN'T CONTROL IT! I felt terrrible! The world's worst mother!

He had a stonker this week - we ended up between a rock and a hard place, an exhausted toddler and two choices that were going to get a tantrum either way as I had to go out and he couldn't cope with coming with me.

When I got back home (We chose him having it with Dad, whilst I went out and did the thing that had to be done) he's been in a paddy for nearly an hour on and off. Dad would get him distracted, but the 'loss' of Mummy was too much and the distress kept surfacing. Poor Daddy was nearly dead with trying to cuddle and console but not enrage. At one point Hugh fixated on the door I'd walked out of, and kicked it several times. If you didn't know what was going in on the brain, that would so look like controlled temper, as opposed to rage and grief! And of course, he calmed the second I picked him up, as he's been so programmend to calm in my arms and I was the object of the 'loss' in the first place. But again, you could so easily 'read' that as deliberately kicking the door, and self-calming the second he 'got what he wanted' and I came in.

They are so bright and so clever and so BRILLIANT! How can their brains not be grown yet! Doh!!!!!! :-)


Jan. 5th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
This was really informative - thank you.
Jan. 5th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC)
i just ate this whole thing up. sounds so simple that you'd think it would be common sense. thank you!
could you please give me the references you used to get the information? i want to show her dad, and maybe a few other people, but they might not be persuaded seeing as it's something i took from the internet. i often get talked down to concerning my parenting choices so this is great.
Jan. 5th, 2007 03:41 pm (UTC)
Best start would be to buy "The Science of Parenting" by Margot Sunderland.


The link will give you details - it's UK link 'tho. It's a compilation and assessment of over 800 scientific research projects done within the last 7 years. She writes clearly and concisely in bite sized chunks and references throughout. If all else fails, hit them over the head with it... ;-)

Not everything I said is in there 'tho - but it really is a good 'bible' on baby brains. It talks aboout why touch and co-sleeping and acknowledging emotional distress is about basic biochemistry, not a parenting fad.


Jan. 5th, 2007 08:39 pm (UTC)
thank you so much!
Jan. 5th, 2007 09:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for taking the time to write this (and your previous article on infants, too!). It's such a relief to read this today -- I've been reading ezzo.info on the horrible Babywise approach to child-rearing. Not with intent to follow it; I was concerned about a family member who might have been following it. But this article is the perfect antidote. Poor little kids. They're not the prideful, manipulative, selfish, intentional "sinners" that some parents think they are.

I'll give my 2-month-old an extra hug now...
Nov. 24th, 2007 05:45 am (UTC)
i agree with you, i think the babywise is so awful!
Aug. 16th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this.
Nov. 24th, 2007 05:43 am (UTC)
i swallowed this whole! i think you are brilliant from writing this just from memory and i thank you because i am mommy to a lovely but slightly rowdy 16 month old. discipline has been our hardest subject. the last paragraph couldn't be more true, though, i've learned... just give into the boob!!!
Jul. 19th, 2010 07:18 am (UTC)
Morgan, I have this in my memories and came back here because I needed it for another mama.

Do you have any ideas or resources for a toddler who physically hurts himself during a tantrum? He bonks his head until he has a bruise - so not the "normal" soothing headbonking before going to sleep you sometimes read about. Really injuring behaviour. Mom is at her wits end!

Thank you!
Jul. 19th, 2010 07:19 am (UTC)
Oh, btw, said toddler is 19 months.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )


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