By Melinda Wenner Moyer Slate
Last month, I discovered 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 losing it 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.
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.
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 under-developed.
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.
A semi-functional frontal lobe also means that toddlers have practically no sense of time and patience and therefore “experience wanting as needing,” Lieberman says.
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.