When we think of tantrums, we think of toddlers crying, maybe swinging their arms, throwing themselves down to the ground or some other big emotional outburst that includes physical characteristics. It is likely that you have come across the term, "the terrible twos," which is not quite accurate but it is used to describe a stage in life when most of us have a really difficult time expressing our wants and needs. During this time, we usually do not have vital language skills, cognitive (brain) development, and social awareness skills necessary to manage our emotions. So sometimes emotions just become too much to handle and we kind of explode. When that happens, we call it a tantrum.
When do trantrums start and stop?
Having worked in schools and with parents for nearly 15 years, a common statement that I encounter is, "I know this child is manipulating me" or, "This child knows what they are doing." Well, that is simply not true. We know this because of how young children are when they have their first tantrum. Typically, toddlerhood includes a few tantrums starting around 18 months. Children that young do not have the cause and effect understanding of manipulation. Instead, manipulation is a very complex social behavior that requires logical thought, planning, and strategy. Toddlers, no matter how brilliant, simply cannot use true manipulation. For us adults, this can be a little hard to remember because sometimes we see children as little adults. They're not. Sometimes their language skills may make us look at them as being older than their true age. Think about it. If you are 25 years old, and the child having a tantrum is three, you have 22 more years of experience and time developing than that child has. That's along time.
The good news is that intense tantrums for typically developing children, do not last forever. Think back to last week when we discussed the brain's control center and learned how the limbic system is responsible for a lot of our emotion regulation, or how we react to the people, places, and things around us. We learned that the part of the brain that interprets threat, the amygdala (two small almond shaped
parts of the brain) is pretty much fully developed at birth for babies born at or close to full-term. Some other parts of the limbic system continue developing until around age 2 years old, but that does not mean that the brain is fully developed at 2.
It is during the first six years of life that the development of executive functioning (e.g., logical thinking, planning, organization of thoughts and objects, attention span) in the frontal lobe (i.e., the front part of the brain - think forehead) occurs. The process starts in early infancy with the beginning phases of utilizing inhibition of reflexes and automatic responses for the goals of reaching previously desired locations and objects. The process continues through early childhood as the child learns to control emotions and attention with supportive adult guidance and social models which are usually other children. The child gradually moves toward being able to wait for gratification and defy distractions and stay on tasks, during the ages of three to six years old.
Why do teens kind of tantrum too?
One of the important factors to consider when understanding child behavior in comparison to the information they possess includes the inhibitory functions. Let me me explain. Inhibitory controls are when a child is able to control the impulse to respond or act. This is the difference between thinking about something and doing something. Research suggests that the frontal lobe makes considerable growth spurts from four to seven years of age, and it is not until late adolescence that it is fully developed. Therefore, while a young child may be able to understand instructions or information given to them by others, the fact that their prefrontal cortex and executive functioning continues developing through adulthood (in the mid to late 20s) means that they will continue to struggle with impulse control and often react emotionally before considering rules and consequences.
Some of this got a little technical. Here are the major points.
Tantrums are developmentally appropriate for young children.
Children start having tantrums around 18-months.
Tantrums continue, off and on, throughout the toddler and preschool years.
Tantrums come close to stopping around the ages five and six years old.
Teens and adults tantrum too, but by then we call it responding impulsively.
Social engagement and support guidance from adults can help children learn to manage their emotions in healthy ways to be psyched about feelings.
Hopefully, you found what you were looking for in this article or learned something new, Remember, take a moment to play a little today.
This was a little information about childhood tantrums and how long it takes the limbic system or the control center to develop in the brain. You're invited to leave a comment and share this articles others.
Parents and caregivers: Do you think your child's tantrums are too intense or are you unsure how to help them when they are having a tantrum? Is your infant or toddler struggling with their emotions? Have you or your young child experienced a potentially traumatizing event and now you just aren't sure how to proceed? If so, we may be able to help. Schedule an intake session for you and your child.
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Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A developmental perspective on executive function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641-1660. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3058827/#R93
Carlson, S. M., & White, R. E. (2013). Executive function, pretend play, and imagination. The Oxford handbook of the development of imagination, 161-174. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=leXFsERtP8IC&oi=fnd&pg=PA161&dq=Executive+function,+pretend+play,+and+imagination.+The+Oxford+handbook+of+the+development+of+imagination,&ots=bTwlzm00kR&sig=L09thscgWZcAT_xBj3p-_Oi_BUI#v=onepage&q=Executive%20function%2C%20pretend%20play%2C%20and%20imagination.%20The%20Oxford%20handbook%20of%20the%20development%20of%20imagination%2C&f=false
Diamond, A. (1990). Developmental Time Course in Human Infants and Infant Monkeys, and the Neural Bases of, Inhibitory Control in Reaching. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 608(1), 637-676. Retrieved from https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1749-6632.1990.tb48913.x