Why Does My Kid Freak Out?

Advice for parents
Feb. 27 2013 5:44 AM

Why Does My Kid Freak Out?

The totally legitimate reasons your animal child just threw spaghetti in your face.

A child freaking out about the dumbest thing.
The toddler life is not actually as cushy as it seems

Photo by Denis Libouton/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Last month, I discovered (and then nearly peed in my pants as a result of) comedian Jason Good’s blog post 46 Reasons My Three Year Old Might Be Freaking Out. (The first three possibilities: His sock is on wrong. His lip tastes salty. His shirt has a tag on it.) After exchanging a few comments on Facebook about it with a friend, she privately messaged me, frustrated with and concerned about her 18-month-old. “It's like all of a sudden in the last three weeks, she's turned into this tantrum ball and I never know what's going to set her off,” she wrote. “I'm living with a baby land mine!”

Me too. What is it with toddlers and losing their minds all the time? Is it normal that my son wails if his shirt sleeve isn’t all the way down, loves the bathtub one day but hates it the next, and manically screams “MINE!” two seconds after handing our dog a ball?

Yes, thankfully. And it’s not only normal, but reasonable. As five experts on child psychology recently explained to me, toddlers’ irrational behaviors are a totally understandable reflection of their inner turmoil and frustrations. In sum, their world is turning upside down and they don’t yet have the skills to handle it. Tantrums don’t mean your kid is a spoiled brat or needs therapy; tantrums mean he is normal.

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The toddler life is not actually as cushy as it seems. Sure, I’d like 12 hours of sleep a night and all my meals prepared for me, thanks. But 2-year-olds are also going through a hellish personal crisis: They have just learned how to walk and use tools, so they really want to explore the world; at the same time, they are terrified of what that world contains and constantly fearful that their parents, whom they love and trust to a terrifying degree, will suddenly abandon them. Oh, and those same parents? They’re suddenly barking “no” all the time, seemingly just for fun. What the hell?

It’s no coincidence that kids start having tantrums around the time that parents start enforcing rules. When you say no, sweetie, you can’t have that butcher knife, your 20-month-old has no idea that you are depriving her of this awesomely shiny contraption for her own safety. “Since it’s the parent, whom they rely on for everything, who is taking it away, it’s perceived as a withdrawal of love, essentially,” says Alicia Lieberman, a professor of Infant Mental Health at the University of California-San Francisco and author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler. “They don’t know your reasoning. They just know that something they were getting great pleasure from, all of a sudden, you are taking away.” The pain that this causes, Lieberman says, is similar to what we might feel if our spouse betrays or cheats on us.

As adults, we (usually) don’t (audibly) freak out when we don’t get what we want or when somebody makes us mad because we can talk ourselves down. We can identify and label the emotion we’re feeling, which, research suggests, goes a long way toward quelling and controlling it. Our ability to label feelings stems in part from our excellent language skills, which young toddlers don’t have yet. Also thanks to language, as adults we can confront the people who are upsetting us and suggest solutions. My 22-month-old, though now very adept at informing me of his need for milk, doesn’t manage complex negotiations so well. His first response to frustration is generally to grab the nearest object and throw it across the room, which makes sense considering that his gross motor skills are among his strongest assets. If the only tool you have is an arm, you tend to see every problem as a potential projectile.

Another reality of the toddler brain: The frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning, logic, reasoning, working memory and self-control, is vastly underdeveloped. Because of this, “toddlers are really living in the moment, not thinking about consequences,” explains developmental psychologist Nancy McElwain, who runs the Children’s Social Development Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. There’s no voice in their head saying, hmm, maybe it’s not a good idea to throw my lovie in the toilet (too bad, because lovie got very wet in our house last week).

A semifunctional frontal lobe also means that toddlers have practically no sense of time and patience and therefore “experience wanting as needing,” Lieberman says—i.e., when they want a chicken nugget, they really, really need it NOW! They can also have a skewed sense of cause-and-effect, developing a paralyzing fear of the bathtub because what if they go down the drain, too? Finally, let’s not forget the importance of experience when it comes to handling challenges appropriately, says developmental psychologist Claire Kopp, co-author of Socioemotional Development in the Toddler Years. The 2-year-old, she says, simply doesn’t have any experiences to draw from.

If it sounds like I’m characterizing your beautiful, special, way-above-average toddler as animal-like, that’s because I am. Pediatrician Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, calls toddlers “little cavemen.” “That is not meant to be derogatory, but meant to set the frame of reference for parents,” he explained to me. “It takes years to socialize our little toddlers, so it’s important for parents to cut themselves some slack. Don’t feel you’re a terrible parent because they smeared jam all over the walls.” (This is not to say that toddlers don’t also love organization and routine; they do. My son lines his toy cars up in a row every day, probably because he’s trying to build some order into his chaotic, confusing life. And his sleeve-down requirements may stem from a desire for consistency.)

The caveman analogy helps to explain yet another issue plaguing toddlers, Karp says: They are very understimulated. Little cavemen (and here I’m talking about the real ones) spent their days very differently than kids do today. “It was a sensory-rich environment: smells, the fresh air, shadows, birds, grass under your feet. Today, we put our little kids in houses and apartments with flat floors, flat walls, ceilings, and not too many chickens, and we think that’s normal,” Karp explains. “It is hard to spend all day with a 2-year-old, and they don’t really want to spend all day with you anyway.”

Given all this, is it really that surprising that tantrums happen as frequently as they do? There are certainly good and bad ways for parents to handle poor behavior (an issue for another column), but the existence of tantrums, and the tendency for toddlers to tackle their woes through screaming and hitting and throwing, is perfectly normal because it’s sometimes “the toddler’s only recourse,” says Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. If your universe were amazing and terrifying and frustrating and unpredictable, and you didn’t have good communication skills or a whole lot of experience or much of a frontal lobe, you’d freak out every once in a while, too.

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in Cold Spring, N.Y., and is DoubleX’s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter.