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Temper tantrums are more complex than just a toddler's unbridled rage. And recent research into what toddlers are thinking and feeling can help us better support kids’ healthy development!

Hosted by: Anthony Brown
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Images:
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/a-child-in-a-blue-shirt-that-is-crying-gm177411453-21296034
https://www.istockphoto.com/vector/brain-cross-section-with-labels-gm502041209-43608806
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/sad-girl-lying-on-the-ground-gm180082082-26841393
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/little-girl-at-home-beautiful-toddler-gm1041326876-278794066
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/i-do-not-want-to-sleep-gm93115673-2918548
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/adorable-little-toddler-girl-or-infant-baby-crying-when-unsatisfied-when-finished-gm1256113485-367680476
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/limited-people-yoga-class-in-studio-during-covid-19-pandemic-gm1249327712-364072859
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/father-and-daughter-gm177029872-19860599
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kasketaldi_haurra_001.jpg
This episode is sponsored by Blinkist.

Blinkist takes all the need-to-know information from thousands of nonfiction books and condenses them down into just 15 minutes. Go to Blinkist.com/SciShowPsych to learn more. [♪ INTRO].

If you’ve spent time with a toddler, you’ve probably experienced the sound and the fury of a temper tantrum. You know, the kind where a tiny child morphs into a wailing volcano of seemingly-unbridled rage. But recent research shows there’s much more going on, and we can learn a lot from temper tantrums, especially when it comes to what toddlers actually think and feel.

And that means we can use tantrums as a tool to help support kids’ healthy development! When a toddler throws a tantrum, it’s basically their brain’s threat detection system working overtime. So there’s a lot going on in their amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing big feelings, and in their hypothalamus, the brain center that controls unconscious things like heart rate and body temperature.

And that would actually be all fine and dandy, if it weren’t for the fact that their prefrontal cortex, the part that helps regulate emotions and behaviors, isn’t fully developed. So when a toddler totally loses it because their socks are the wrong color, it’s because they literally can’t control their overwhelming feelings yet! Now, historically, researchers thought that those overwhelming feelings were just one emotion: anger.

They literally defined tantrums as violent outbursts of rage. In fact, a diagnostic text from 1937 went as far as to describe tantrums as the “strong desire to disturb, destroy, annoy, or annihilate.” And this idea that toddlers were just unpredictable rage monsters informed a lot of parenting strategies over the years, even though it’s wrong. Like, experts actually suggested splashing kids with cold water to cool their fury, which, for the record, is a terrible idea.

By the 1990s, psychologists realized that there are actually two distinct emotions involved in temper tantrums: anger and sadness. Which matters because the ways of helping a child through those emotions can differ. For instance: an angry toddler may not want to be comforted, while a sad toddler may not respond well to being left alone!

But even then, the prevailing idea was that one emotion flowed from the other… like, kids would start angry and end up sad, or vice versa. So, the best response to a tantrum would depend on what stage of it the kid was in, though, no one could agree on which emotion was first. More recently, psychologists have come to realize that tantrums are much more complex, because toddlers actually experience a range of emotions and emotional intensities.

And they’re feeling all those feels at the same time. For an article published in Emotion in 2011, scientists used onesies outfitted with microphones to study whether toddlers’ vocalizations, like screams and whines, could shed more light on the emotional component of tantrums. In all, they analyzed almost 1300 vocalizations from 24 tantrums, and found that toddlers express different levels of anger and sadness at different audio frequencies.

They used lower frequency, quieter vocalizations when they were feeling sad. And when they became angry, their vocalizations increased in both energy and frequency. They also saw that the pattern of the frequencies over time was different for different emotions, sad sounds peaked in the middle, while angry ones spiked at the beginning.

These unique patterns allow the researchers to track the timing of emotions throughout tantrums. And rather than feeling one or the other, the little ones expressed both sadness and anger basically the whole time. So not only do a toddler’s screams communicate how angry or sad they are, those emotions are more intertwined and simultaneous than we used to think.

All of this means that comforting a child during a tantrum is kind of hard. But, listening can help caregivers make sure they’re responding to a child’s emotions in the most effective way. Another tried and true tactic is to stay as calm as possible, because that actually helps calm them down.

Researchers aren’t completely sure why, but some think it has to do with mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that light up when we “mirror,” or mimic, an action that’s being performed by another person. So, they get activated while you’re trying to follow your yoga teacher’s movements, for instance.

And while even neuroscientists still don’t know a ton about how they work, psychological researchers think that they could also play a role in emotional mimicry. Essentially, when a toddler sees someone being calm, their mirror neurons might kick in and tell them to mimic that calmness. Whereas if you get heated, you could be subconsciously telling their brains to dial things up.

Plus, keeping a cool head is key to being there for a toddler who needs help navigating the rollercoaster of anger and sadness they’re feeling. That’s because staying calm helps you make better choices. When a toddler’s behavior makes us angry, we’re more likely to make rash decisions that don’t fix the situation.

In fact, these can make things worse. Meanwhile, by keeping calm and observing toddlers’ tantrum behavior, we can pick up on signs that a kiddo might need extra help with handling their emotions. For example, while tantrums are a perfectly normal part of a toddler’s development, toddlers that have lots of long, destructive tantrums may have an underlying mood or disruptive behavior disorder.

And diagnosing and treating these early in life can help kids have better outcomes. So when we understand toddlers’ temper tantrums, we can use them to help support kids’ healthy development! And while knowing the why behind a toddler tantrum might not make it any easier to get through, remember: they’re just trying to figure out this human emotion stuff!

And that’s hard, even for adults. Right? Sure, we can pick up a book and read through it to learn more about our brains or whatever else we’re curious about, but who has the time for that?

Lucky for us, the folks at Blinkist do. Blinkist is an app that takes the best insights from over 3,000 nonfiction books and condenses them down into about a quarter of an hour of your time, either reading or listening. For example, in just 13 minutes or so, you could digest the most important lessons from How Emotions Are Made, a whole book about emotions written by a neuroscientist!

And their complete library spans everything from health to business to history. The first 100 people to go to Blinkist.com/SciShowPsych will get unlimited access for 1 week to try it out. And if you love it, you’ll also get 25% off if you want the full membership.

So if you’re interested, you can click the link in the description to start your free trial! [♪ OUTRO].