The Scientific Cause of Sudden Toddler Meltdowns
Most parents think kids can control their emotions long before their brains are equipped to do so
Toddler feelings come at you fast. One minute you and your child are having a joyful tickle-fest on the sofa; the next they’re lying on the floor and crying because you suggested wiping snot off their face.
As much as it may feel like your toddler is the world’s least rational human, there are scientific reasons for this unpredictability. Understanding what’s going on in your kid’s head can help you teach them to handle their feelings—or, at the very least, keep you from ending up crying on the floor yourself.
Around age two, kids’ personalities are blossoming, says Rebecca Parlakian, parenting expert for the nonprofit Zero to Three. Two-year-olds are funny and charming and may express themselves well verbally. The downside of this is that they kind of fool us into thinking they’re more mature than they really are, Parlakian says.
That’s because the toddler brain is changing in major ways during early childhood, says Mary Margaret Gleason, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Tulane University. It’s sprouting new connections between brain cells at an astonishing rate, and it is beginning to prune back unnecessary connections. And the prefrontal cortex, the brain area behind the forehead that helps with planning and other tricky cognitive tasks, is nowhere near complete. In fact, it keeps maturing into early adulthood.
Among the critical skills a young prefrontal cortex hasn’t yet mastered is self-regulation, or the ability to control emotions and behavior. This is what helps transform a volatile toddler into a kid who can keep their cool when they find out their favorite pajamas are in the laundry. Carol Weitzman, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine, says that when parents and doctors talk about developmental milestones, they should really be talking about milestones of self-regulation too.
But while a toddler’s brain is still building the areas that will let them control their feelings, their sense of self is also emerging. At age two, they know they are their own person. That realization is bringing big new emotions, like pride in accomplishments and a growing desire to do things for themselves.
When those things are unsafe or impossible—or would make a trip to the grocery store take 37 hours—the toddler will probably be disappointed. “I think it’s important just to recognize that toddlers’ lives are filled with frustrating experiences,” Gleason says. And when those frequent disappointments happen, the underequipped toddler brain is unable to handle the big feelings.
That doesn’t always mean a tantrum. Kids are born with different temperaments—some are highly reactive, while others are more mellow and can go with the flow. No matter where your child falls on the meltdown meter, there are ways you can deal with overwhelming emotions.
First, manage your expectations. “In parenting, our expectations shape the way we respond,” Parlakian says. In a 2016 survey, Zero to Three found that nearly a quarter of parents thought children could avoid having a tantrum, or otherwise control their emotions, by age one; in reality, these self-regulation skills develop between three-and-a-half and four years. “We respond more compassionately if we recognize that this is a limitation not of character, but of development,” Parlakian says.
The environment at home can also help with the development of self-regulation. “Parents play a remarkably important part in helping create healthy brains,” Weitzman says. She encourages “positive attention, praise and play.” Parenting that’s too strict or too permissive makes it harder for a child to learn self-regulation. Kids whose parents stay in that middle ground, nurturing their autonomy while also setting boundaries, have stronger self-regulation skills. In practice, this can mean offering your toddler choices within limits: if their favorite PJs are dirty, they can pick out a clean pair to wear instead.
Modeling is important too. “Kids learn emotional regulation from the people around them,” Gleason says. That’s why getting upset with your upset toddler does not help. (It should go without saying that spanking and hitting are ineffective and damaging interventions.) It’s normal to feel angry with your kid sometimes, but remember that they’re observing how you handle your own feelings too. If their tantrums are intense, aggressive, or destructive, or if you can regularly measure them in hours rather than minutes, you might want to talk to a doctor. Otherwise, one of the best things you can do to quell them is to demonstrate your own cool head.
To avoid meltdowns in the first place, know your child and their triggers. Being hungry and tired are common causes of toddler malaise. Pickup time from childcare is often tricky too. “That moment of reuniting, for a toddler, is really emotionally overwhelming,” Parlakian says. And it’s common for kids to hold it together during the day, then break down when they come home to the parents they love and trust—just like an adult might lose it with a partner after a hard day at work.
When your toddler starts to get upset, you may feel ridiculous saying, “Yes, it’s very frustrating that your favorite pajamas are in the laundry,” or “You’re angry I wiped that booger, huh?” But labeling and validating their feelings helps them learn to manage them.
“We all want our children to be happy, but you don’t raise a happy child by having them happy every second of every day,” Parlakian says. “Being a happy human being means that we have the skills to manage difficult emotions.”