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How Your Kid's Tantrum Changes Their Brain, According To Science

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If my toddlers wrote a book, it would be aptly titled The Art of The Tantrum. They've perfected their tantrum technique, knowing just when and how to have a total meltdown. If tantrums happen enough, you may wonder now only why these fits happen but also how your kid's tantrum affects their brain. Yes, figuring out a child's mind can be complicated, but it's worth exploring if you can learn how to react in a helpful, rational way (instead of, you know, having an adult-sized tantrum of your own).

As frustrating as they may be, tantrums aren't just your kid's way of embarrassing you in the middle of the grocery store or regularly postponing bedtime. A tantrum is most commonly your toddler's way of trying to communicate. According to Better Health, tantrums are caused by the limbic system in their brain — the part that handles emotion. Since the "logic and reasoning" part of their brain — the prefrontal cortex — isn't as fully developed at this age, toddlers naturally see the world and react to it through their emotional lens.

When a toddler has a tantrum, their brains aren't able to rationalize what is happening to them, and so their limbic system in their brain takes over, sometimes resulting in a full-blown meltdown.

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In addition to their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, an article from CNN explained how hormone levels in a toddler's brain react in response to "tantrum triggers" like stress, sleepiness, hunger, confusion or sickness. Toddlers younger than 4 years of age aren't able to rationalize that, no, the bathtub won't swallow you whole, so their brains release cortisol (the "fight or flight" hormone) in response. Cortisol then raises blood pressure, increases heart rate, and causes the inevitable meltdown.

The tantrums, however, won't last forever. The aforementioned Better Health article noted that tantrums are most common from 18 months to about 4 years old, which is when their prefrontal cortex is formed enough to help them verbalize their feelings.

Although knowing that tantrums are essentially a chemical reaction in your child's brain doesn't make them any less frustrating, it can help you understand what's really going on in that little person's developing mind and help you empathize with them. Even in the middle of a grocery store.