Your Child's Brain in Week 96
Maybe they've yet to arrive full-blown, and are instead just threatening to ravage your once-quiet days together. But when your toddler's first tantrums do noisily blow through your family's life, they will likely amaze, frustrate, and worry you. One day your usually compliant toddler, who has yet to show any difficulty interacting with her world, will crumple, flailing about on the floor as the result of nothing more than being denied one final cookie, and you'll wonder what to do. Do you hand it over to assuage her? Delay her gratification before giving in? Just console your child as she works through the misery of the moment?
Like parents, researchers are curious about what causes such outbursts in young children. They're also interested in to learn what helps toddlers manage frustrating situations, all the while supporting their healthy emotional development. Here's what we know—and what you can do.
What the Research Shows
In a research situation with mothers present, researchers offered two-year-olds the choice of a cookie or a toy. If a child chose the cookie, the experimenter put it in a clear plastic container for two minutes before giving it to the child. The toddler could see the yummy cookie, but couldn't get at it in order to eat it. Peeved, most toddlers began to melt down.
If the child chose the toy, the researcher allowed him to play with it for one minute, but then took it away and placed it in clear plastic container. Again, most of the frustrated toddlers became angry, which ultimately lead to full-blown tantrums.
During these rage-provoking events, the researchers were as interested in each mother's behavior as they were each child's: They wanted to see whether any particular reactions to their child's tantrums had any effect on how long the behaviors continued. In this longitudinal study (which started when the children were 2 years old and resumed at ages 4 and 5), the children who continued to display regular periods of aggression, defiance, and other tantrum behaviors were those whose mothers were consistently highly reactive during the frustrating situations and were not able to control their own emotions once the tantrums began. The study results showed that the most tempestuous kids were those with mothers who—on a continuum of interactivity—were either highly controlling over their children or displayed an extremely lax amount of control. Research, then says, that to reduce your child's number and frequency of tantrums over time, being consistently but not overly responsive to them is key.