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Tantrums: Why They Happen and How to Soothe Your Kid

You’ve been there: An action as simple as giving your child the wrong snack is an injustice worthy of waging war (and in this case, “war” is a tantrum).

Premiered: Runtime: 5:02Topic: Body + BrainBody & BrainNova
Premiered on PBS

Fortunately, hosts Alok Patel and Bethany Van Delft are here to break down why children “break down” and have tantrums—and what you should do to help them through it.

Children aren’t able to regulate their responses to “blocked goals,” whatever it is they may desire or the things they want to see happen. Just as you may get upset when a yellow light turns red or you don’t make it to the grocery store before it closes, children may get upset when something they want isn’t given to them or something doesn’t work out as planned.

Children also want to have autonomy, Alok explains. When their desires are “blocked” by their most notorious goalie—their parents and caregivers telling them “NO”—children tend to unleash their frustration on them.

When a tantrum begins to bubble inside your little one, “You can think about a train running into a tunnel,” Alok says. As the train is approaching the “tantrum tunnel,” as a parent or guardian, you may think about methods to prevent a meltdown. (Once the train gets into the tunnel, it’s meltdown time.) Of course, there’s no tried and true tantrum prevention method. “You just have to wait for [the train] to come out the other side,” Bethany says.

When it comes to handling her child’s tantrums, Bethany employs a few different methods depending on what her three-year-old son is experiencing. “If he’s full-blown anger, we let it ride,” she says. Afterward, once he’s calmed down, Bethany talks to him about what happened to make him so upset. Learning what triggers a tantrum can help parents plan for tantrums instead of preventing them, says Bethany.

For many young children (but not all), tantrums are “a regular part of [early] childhood,” Alok says. By around five or six years old—thanks to the growth of their prefrontal cortex—many children will have developed more self-regulation skills and will experience fewer tantrums. Fortunately, during this time, you should be able to talk your child through their emotional outbursts with more ease.

If your child still has tantrums past six years old and seems irritable and disinterested in other activities, “you should get them evaluated because it could be signs of another medical condition or something else that should be looked at,” Alok says.

At the end of the day, being a toddler is hard. Empathize with your little one—because “the struggle is real to them,” Bethany says.

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Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.

Major funding for Parentalogic is provided by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and PBS.