Toddler Tantrums and the Growing Brain

Children are amazing!  We watch them grow from tiny infants to curious toddlers running around everywhere, asking endless questions, and learning to push boundaries. For parents and carers, managing challenging behaviour is often daunting. But brain science can help!

Today, we know a lot more about baby and toddler brains than we did 20 years ago. By age 3, brains are almost fully grown in size. Yet children at this age still struggle with sharing, waiting, or understanding words like “no” or “later.” It’s because that part of the toddler brain is not fully developed yet! We don’t expect children to be born knowing how to operate a washing machine – learning to cope with big emotions is much the same.

Experiences and the outside environment affect babies’ brain development. In the first five years of life, the brain grows from the size of a walnut to a grapefruit!  Neural pathways are building with astonishing speed.  Loving care shapes brain structure – it creates strong brain connections that become permanent. Playful talking, turn taking, singing, gentle touch and friendly faces stimulate the release of oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone.” This helps your little one feel safe and secure. You can’t really spoil your child with too much love!

When children experience stress frequently in the early years it can cause problems in later life. Ongoing exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, can affect developing brains. It’s like central heating that cannot be turned off. Little brains become programmed to expect stress, making it more difficult for children to cope with challenging situations.  A soothing touch and calming word give toddlers the security they need when they are having a tough time.

When toddlers have a tantrum, it’s a sign that they are feeling big feelings, and are struggling to control them. Knowing this, we can see why some behaviour management strategies don’t always work.  Hoping that a child would sit still for a long time or say a heartfelt “sorry” might be expecting too much! Trying to be with your toddler during a tantrum, staying calm and naming their feelings for them will help them recover much quicker. It will also help keep your relationship strong and secure.

Remember, parenting is all about being good enough. There is no such thing as a perfect parent!  Simply spending time together, playing and laughing with your child and learning to read their needs will help their brain grow. Soon, your little one will be off as a confident little explorer!

If want advice regarding your child’s development, or if you are feeling overwhelmed as a parent, talk to your public health nurse or doctor.

Top tips -The 5 R’s for healthy brain development      

Relationships

 Babies and toddlers need you! Getting to know what your baby /toddler likes & dislikes, their little personality helps build strong bonds – watch wait and wonder what can your little one do, delight in all they can do!

Responsive interactions

Following your baby’s lead – what are they looking at – interested in? Babies learn through all their senses, slowing down and taking time to look with baby at what is in their environment helps their brain to grow.  Chat to your baby, wait and give them a chance to babble back. Babies are born social and love to gaze and gurgle at you while snuggled up close. Toddlers love when you play with them and join in their little games and chat.

Respect

Your baby / toddler is a unique and special little person. They need you to understand what they can do, and they need you to praise and encourage their efforts. Tantrum behaviour is not personal or a reflection on you as a parent—it’s a normal part of a toddler’s development.  By providing support and love while your toddler is feeling out of control shows them respect and tells them they are important. This will help them learn to manage their feelings.

 Routines

Routines offer security and safety. Young children do best when they know what is happening and what will come next. Try using everyday care routines (nappy changing, dinner time, bedtime stories) as opportunities to bond with your child. Remember that routines are best when they are flexible as baby and toddler’s needs change as they grow. Little ones can cope with change with your help and love.

Repetition 

Babies and young children love repetition. You can provide a playful and stimulating environment by playing simple games such as peekaboo, sharing favourite books over and over again, messy play for toddlers and getting outside. These all help grow healthy brains and bonds. Just 15 minutes  play a day makes a big difference!

This article was contributed by ABC Start Right, an early intervention project and member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.