5 Reasons Your Toddler is Freaking Out, According to Science

by ParentCo. June 02, 2017

A kid is crying while playing

When my son gets dressed in the morning, he puts his socks on last. They must be white, he admonishes when I hand him the wrong pair. They must be long. Above all, they must be worn over his pants, pulled all the way up to his knees.

I’ve tried to talk him out of it. I’ve tried explaining to him that it’s just not a good look, but the second I tuck them in it’s like I’ve pulled out the wrong wire on a live bomb. He explodes into a fury of kicks, screams, and tears. Within moments, he’ll collapse on the ground, moaning through heavy sobs that his socks don't look “piratey.”

For some reason, this is a huge trigger for my son. He isn’t just a crybaby – he can bash his head into a chair and hold it all in, but the second I tell him how to wear his socks, a tantrum ensues.

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There doesn’t seem to be much logic to a toddler’s temper tantrums, but there is a science to them. There are reasons why kids freak out over something as silly as how piratey their socks look, and it makes more sense than you’d expect.

Sure, it can feel like your child is the only one in the world who freaks out this badly, but every child has tantrums. They’re a normal part of development and, in a way, they’re actually good for our kids. Here are some of the reasons toddlers blow up.

They think we’ve stopped loving them

When my son was three, I explained to him what unconditional love meant. “It means Mommy and Daddy will always love you no matter what happens,” I told him.

I’d always imagined he got this instinctively, but he didn't. He was absolutely amazed to find out that our love for him wasn’t some brittle thing that could fall apart at the drop of a hat.

And that’s how it is for most toddlers – they think that they can lose our love at a moment’s notice. According to Professor Alicia Lieberman, toddlers take our disapproval as a sign that we’ve stopped loving them. Some will think, “When mommy is angry with me, does she still love me?” Others will even say it out loud.

When we show our disapproval, toddlers don’t always see it as just getting in trouble. They think their whole relationship with their parents is about to fall apart and they go into total panic mode.

Babies don’t understand that they’re just babies

Kids usually start having tantrums around the time we start setting rules. That’s no coincidence.

As parents we see ourselves as caretakers, people who are responsible for keeping our children safe. The thing is, toddlers don’t see us that way. They see the world as something open and free that they’re invited to explore.

For the first time, our children are finally free to do what they like and, as far as they can tell, we’ve spontaneously decided to go on some weird power trip to stop them from doing anything they want. They don’t understand the reason behind our rules and it makes them furious.

Being a toddler is confusing and terrifying

Children’s brains aren’t fully developed. Specifically, a toddler’s frontal lobe is still underdeveloped, and that changes a lot about how they perceive reality.

For one thing, toddlers use magical thinking instead of logical thinking. This means that they accept crazy ideas like “Santa is real” and “my uncle just stole my nose” as facts, because it appeals to their emotions.

This puts them on the edge. The tiniest thing that adults never even imagined as scary can cause toddlers' bodies to release fight-or-flight chemicals, priming them to freak out. Since they don’t understand the concept of time, those freak-outs can be bad. They’ll throw toys across the room, be damned what comes of it tomorrow, because they don’t fully understand that right now will end.

They don’t know how else to express themselves

When our kids have tantrums, we often think they’re trying to manipulate us. We often worry that they’re starting to outsmart us and take over the house, but that’s rarely true.

Kids freak out because they don’t really know how to do anything else. A toddler can’t sit down and explain what’s troubling him, what path he thinks you should take, and why he feels it would be in your best interest to take his suggestions.

All toddlers really know how to do is take all those emotions they’re feeling inside and get them to the outside. Usually, they don’t even try to do it, the emotions just spill out uncontrollably. Pretty soon, they’re screaming and crying, which is exactly how they're feeling on the inside.

Of course, if they start to notice that having a tantrum lets them get their way, they’ll start doing it deliberately. As we long as don’t reward them for freaking out, they won’t do it on purpose.

They learn from it

It’s a pain watching your child freak out in the middle of the grocery store, but it isn't entirely a bad thing. Your child is learning a valuable life lesson from this meltdown, and it’s one she's going to have to learn sooner or later: life is sometimes hard.

Frustration is a part of every person’s life, something we realize for the first time when we’re toddlers. That’s why kids freak out so badly. It’s not just that you didn’t buy them cookies. In a way, they’re struggling with the existential realization that life is not going to give them the things that they want.

They’ll have to learn this sooner or later. As long as we comfort our children and show them we still love them when the freak-out is over, they’ll learn that even in their darkest moments, they're not alone. Their family will love them and will be there to support them – even when they’re not getting their way.



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