How Neuroscience Can Help Unravel the Mystery of Toddler Tantrums

A small child is crying with a parent holding him in front of a blue bowl on a table

What causes toddlers to have tantrums?

Is there a parent, a provider, or a caregiver who hasn’t spent long hours pondering that question? Over the years, I’ve noticed that tantrums attract more interest and inspire more intrigue than practically any other parenting topic. What explains these all-too-familiar outbursts?

Let’s examine an answer that’s based in a deep understanding of contemporary neuroscience. (For a deep dive into the science, see the book How Emotions Are Made, by the renowned neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.)

As I discuss in my new book, Brain-Body Parenting, neuroscientists tell us that our brains are essentially prediction machines. At every moment, our brains are subconsciously poised to predict what they must do to keep us alive and safe. These calculations all take place over milliseconds, and just milliseconds before we take action.

Learning and the Prediction Error

How do our brains develop the capacity to make these predictions? Human beings gain knowledge of our world through what’s called statistical learning. In short, we need to repeat experiences over and over for our brains to develop the ability to make accurate predictions.

That is how we learn to comfort ourselves—through repetition and variation with the help of our loving caregivers. In the process, as children, we sometimes encounter huge disappointments: the brain makes a prediction, but then something unexpected happens.

For instance, let’s say you’re out at your child’s favorite fast-food place, only to discover that the management has replaced your child’s favorite star-shaped chicken nuggets with something else—circular nuggets! Your child’s brain was expecting one thing (stars) and it got another (circles). What happens next? An automatic stress behavior commonly known as a tantrum!

Of course, for most adults, it’s easy to adjust to such a change. So what happened to the child? She experienced something called a prediction error.

When a toddler encounters something that they are not expecting, it can feel catastrophic. 

Again: prediction error—the brain expects one thing, but something else happens. For a toddler, that can feel catastrophic, even though to the adults witnessing, the causes can seem insignificant.

A toddler may require years of experience to develop the ability to calm himself down tell and tell himself, for example, “It’s not a big deal—the nuggets will taste the same even though they’re shaped differently.” Or “The water is still water, even though this time it’s in a gray cup and not a flowery one. I am okay.”

So how do we ease the burden on our children when they experience prediction errors? First by developing an awareness and appreciation of the phenomenon. Rather than calling it, “the terrible twos,” for instance, think of successful predicting as an emerging capacity. And how about if we work on our linguistics and just stop using the old-fashioned word “tantrum”, and “temper-tantrum.” Children simply don’t “throw” tantrums. Maybe we should replace the word tantrum with prediction error, or simply, a stress response. Which is what it is.

And try this: Provide yourself with heavy doses of self-compassion, because, well, it’s exhausting and difficult to find patience for these firecracker moments. Then, when your child experiences a prediction error, speak with warmth and compassion, and offer comforting, understanding words: “Well, that was a surprise, or “that was unexpected.” Stay calm and provide what we call co-regulation. Rather than judge a child’s distress at the unexpected, stand by them, believing their truth and not trying to talk them out of it. Nor should we try to punish them for it. (Keep in mind that children’s ability to process language falls on a spectrum so don’t worry if this approach doesn’t work for every child.)

These paradigm shifts based on a new understanding of brain and body development can liberate us from the outdated paradigms that still persist in our culture today.

You can read about prediction error, co-regulation and more parenting insights in my latest book, Brain-Body Parenting.

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