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Every parent knows the scene. You're in the supermarket with your three-year-old child. You've navigated the vegetable aisles with an eerie calm; you've negotiated the sweet cereals like the Ninja Parent. But now your child has seen the sweets, and they're getting ready to throw the tantrum of the century.
Their sweet, smiling face, the pleading request of "Can I have these?", as they proffer the brightly-coloured additive-delivery devices at you, has been rebuffed. They've had sweets today/they'll spoil their appetite/there's no money for extras.
Pick your poison.
Whatever you say, the response is immediate. The smile becomes a scowl as they clutch the sweets to their chest like a long-lost pet: "I want these."
Put them back, you say.
A sudden scream as anger floods their face. A forceful cry of "No", extended so long that unsuspecting passers-by think you must have threatened some terrible torture. Your baby throws the sweets on the floor and flings themselves facedown on top of them, kicking and screaming like a horribly mistreated child who didn't eat less than an hour ago.
You're embarrassed. Blushing. You feel like the worst parent in the world.
How did it happen? How did your sweet child go from Pollyanna to Carrie in three seconds flat? And how can you deal with such epic tantrums when they arise?
What are tantrums?
A tantrum is a child responding to an explosion of anger or frustration in the only way they can. When a child has a tantrum, they are experiencing strong and frightening emotions that they can't yet express in a more constructive way, so they express those emotions by crying, screaming, and even hitting things and people.
What causes tantrums?
For a long time, it was believed that nurture (parenting) was the cause of tantrums. Many people still believe that is the case (hence the dirty looks you probably receive when your child has a tantrum in the supermarket).
However, that is not the case.
The cause of tantrums is biological and begins in a bit of the old grey-matter called the "prefrontal cortex". The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and tells us what social interactions aren't appropriate. In time, the prefrontal cortex will learn that "screaming in a public place is a socially-inappropriate way to express disappointment". However, at three-years-old, that's too much to ask.
The prefrontal cortex doesn't begin developing until four-years-old and isn't fully-developed until the age of twenty-five. That's why children, teens and young adults can seem to respond (to an adult) irrationally to disappointment or anger, and may behave in ways that we find inappropriate.
The underdeveloped prefrontal cortex makes it difficult to regulate emotion, but there are more problems for toddlers. Toddlers experience heightened awareness in situations that feel normal to us.
Heightened awareness is caused by the child exploring an unfamiliar world and raises the fight-or-flight hormone Cortisol. Raising Cortisol raises the blood pressure and makes thinking more addled.
We know the friendly bear we bought is an inanimate toy. The toddler doesn't know if it's going to come alive in the night and eat them. This fear is very real to the toddler and may cause tantrums at bedtime.
Addled thinking, raised stress levels and an underdeveloped emotional centre makes the child's body a pressure cooker that makes tantrums inevitable.