Many parents find their toddler's temper tantrums bewildering. How is it possible that a once-sweet baby could fall to the floor screaming and kicking? How could such a tantrum be considered normal? To learn the answer to why toddlers have temper tantrums, you need to put yourself in the shoes of both a baby and a typical toddler. I will do this for you, showing you first what life is like from the perspective of a baby and then from a toddler's point of view.
'For many months, since I was born, my parents have been catering to my every demand. They knock themselves out to keep me satisfied and comfortable. Each time I whimper, cry, burp or pass gas mom or dad, or both parents, are there for me. What a wonderful life! What wonderful service! I have two grown-ups catering to me 'round the clock. It doesn't matter if it's 3 in the morning or 9 at night. I can count on mom or dad to be there to change my wet diaper or give me a bottle. Sometimes, they even rock me or sing me a song.'
Everything I just described is absolutely necessary for babies. They need this nurturing and attention to survive. They need this service and love so they can trust that their new world outside the womb is a good place. If a baby learns he can rely on the world to help him survive, he has the foundation to develop a personality. Babies also need this service and love so they can fall in love with their parents. You see, babies have been inside their mother's womb for nine months. A mother may have fallen in love with her baby during this time, but her baby won't fall in love with her until after he leaves the womb. This happens only if mom and dad are there for a baby in every way.
Now, let's move on to life from the perspective of the baby as he becomes a toddler.
'I'm feeling wonderfully secure with the way everyone is fussing with me. I eat when I'm hungry and get changed when I'm wet. When I'm irritable, someone picks me up. When I'm bored, someone hands me a rattle. Little by little, though, I'm growing up. Soon I can roll over and then I can sit up. Before I know it, I'm 18 months old. Things are changing fast. I'm a toddler! All of a sudden the 'round-the-clock service I had been receiving is beginning to slack off. I guess when you're a toddler you can't have this continuous service all the time—I may even have to wait. What's really upsetting is when my mom or dad says, 'No.' At times they even seem to be mad at me, and they scold me.'
As a parent, you can now see how a baby has come to expect that he will have his way. You can also see that, to a toddler, growing up means receiving less service from his parents and having to wait for needs to be satisfied. All this can be overwhelming for a toddler who not only has these high expectations, but who has not yet developed any self-control or coping skills. So when a toddler is faced with frustration, he often loses it and has a temper tantrum. When the world doesn't respond to a toddler the way it did when he was a baby, he temporarily goes into a fit of rage. At this point, he cannot respond to reason. Trying to stop your toddler's temper tantrum by saying something like, 'If you don't stop I will give you something to cry about,' means nothing to him.
Also, you can see why it doesn't make sense to interpret a toddler's temper tantrum as a defiant act against authority. A toddler in the middle of a temper tantrum is not defying anyone. This child is temporarily out of control, a little 'crazy.' He cannot help himself.
As your toddler grows, he experiences one frustration after another. From these experiences, the toddler gradually begins to develop a tolerance for putting things off and not always having his way. But this takes time. While he learns how to tolerate frustration, there will be many temper tantrums. Sometimes during these temper tantrums, the toddler will fall to the floor and bang his head. Sometimes, he will pull his hair and spit. Sometimes he will kick his feet, or throw things—or throw up. All of this is normal...of course, it's also trying on the toddler's parents. But now that you understand why toddlers have temper tantrums, you will be in a better position to be patient—and you'll be reassured that you're not raising a brat.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.