As I peruse the information and opinions regarding tantrums and appropriate responses that can be readily found via a quick online search, I am struck by one significant idea: the definition of a tantrum is the same for a behavior that is completely developmentally reasonable for an 18-month-old as it for the same behavior that should be different for a 36-month-old. Splitting hairs, you might say. What even is this business of using months instead of years when giving the age of young children? The tantrum definition is commonly the same for a 4 or 5-year-old, if that helps assuage the semantics debate. There IS a reason for using months during the first years instead of a more general (and less math-dependent) 1, 2, or 3 way of viewing the child. If we consider all the physical and developmental milestones and that 80% of synoptic creation within the brain itself is completed by the third year, then it goes without saying that a 1.5-year-old is vastly different than a .8-year-old and a 2.5-year old is not at all in the same stage of growth and development as an 18-month old. Interestingly, physical and motor development occur at a proximal-distal (from the inside to the out) and cephalocaudal (head to tail, or top to bottom) pattern except for the brain: it develops from the inside out and from the bottom (stem) and upwards and outwards. The pre-frontal lobe, the upper and outer 1/3 that is responsible for what we consider “mature” decision making (or executive function) skills; for and integrating emotions/actions, problem-solving and planning and more will not be finished developing for at least two decades…but long as it may take in finishing, it does not wait to begin. That process starts at the beginning, as the brain is always actively taking in each experience, building and rebuilding mostly invisible networks of information during every stage of discovery.
When welcoming a new-born, we are ready to meet the needs of the neonate brain- the stem functions are supremely important and the inherent needs for love and safety and comfort are met with intensity (hopefully). Not enough can be said about how critical this time of connecting is for the new child. Each experience, particularly those that are repeated, engages the developing brain and its growth. Motor development and language centers of the brain are growing exponentially and as the child reaches new stages and milestones, the role of the environment -personal and emotional even more than physical, is essential. In the first year, trust is the defining need of social and emotional development. True to Erik Erikson’s widely accepted and relied upon timeline of psychosocial development, the infant is learning to trust that her physical needs will be met and to feel safe as she grows, learns to move, becomes more mobile and starts to explore her world. The first 18 months of her life are an undertaking of internalizing that trust so that she is ready to step even further into her world and farther from her lifelines-her parents and caregivers.
Now comes the fun part: As any parent of an 18-month-old can tell you, something about a child changes at this point. There are new behaviors and often the child can either be heard or seen (or both at the same time) saying “no”. This is scary for both the parent and the child, who is starting to see herself as an individual. She is not an extension of her caregivers or her immediate environment, she is herself. With that huge epiphany comes the emergent WILL of the child. What does SHE want? What does she like? What if she disagrees with what others want? She’s been learning language long enough to understand the words of direction that she hears, but why do we say them, and do they actually matter, or are they just words?? Because the young toddler is still a very concrete and experience-based learner, she will ask these questions with her actions and it will be the active responses of the adults in her world that help her understand the answers. And although this need to know about her autonomy and her WILL continues to be her social-emotional focus until around her third birthday, the initial entry into this phase will appear to be loud! Enter the tantrums, front and center for many families. Strong feelings of disappointment, anger and fear of the intensity of her own emotions with little frame of reference to help her understand and have a perspective of relativity often result in multiples tantrums a day (and night). With every tantrum though comes an opportunity for the child to learn about her feelings and needs as well as those of others and, ideally, about the limitations of her willpower. As her experiences are repeated in various settings, she will be become more satisfied if her answers are consistently appropriate for her abilities and understanding. A child knows that she is a child and is uncomfortable with powers and responsibilities that she can’t handle. She still has a deep need to trust that her caregivers will keep her safe and healthy- these things cannot be a child’s responsibility. (Just as the neurological and physical development focused on a timeline and produced the necessary components for development- we never stop needed those components). When the question of WILL is not answered to a child’s satisfaction, she will repeat it again and again -especially if the answers are different in different setting or with different caregivers. Along the way, the toddler will also be learning so much more language, gaining a multitude of skills and developing along her physical, neurological and psychosocial timelines. Young children are tenacious learners. By the time her third birthday is near, the child should have asked and had answered her imperative and timely questions about what it means to be a unique part of a group of individuals. She cannot be leader all the time. She can contribute. She can help care for others in her group and she can benefit from others in the group. She can trust those around her, and she can trust her view of herself. When the toddlers need to understand her autonomy and unique wishes as they apply to her life are met, she will be prepared to move on to her next period of developmental focus. Tantrums should be beginning to dwindle in both intensity and quantity as she moves toward her next developmental growth spurt. She’ll continue growing even if the information she receives during this stage, as with any other stage, is less than helpful to her overall psychosocial health and this is what I refer to as a “prolonged toddlerhood”. While her cognitive abilities may be that of an older child, her behavior and tantrums will remain those of a toddler until her understanding changes.
In the same way that physiological development follows an inward to outward pattern, so does psychosocial development. The brainstem gives way to the cerebral cortex. The spinal cord development gives way to musculature and limbs…and in the same way, the previously physically dependent infant is introduced to life in a bigger world. We start as infants, needing to absorb as much love and safety from our world as possible for our internal development and growth and then we begin to move away. Parents and caregivers are typically prepared to meet those initial needs. It feels easy (if not physically tiring) to meet the newborn as he comes to us- it comes naturally to everyone involved. We are physically wired to know what babies need-babies smell good to us, elicit pheromones that reduce adults to goo, cause us to soften and heighten our voices and reach out…. But the change from the first stage to the next is not so innately easy for adults: So often, I hear parents saying “My babbbbbyyy!” when filled with pride and awe of skill that their toddler has worked to achieve. It hard to change our perspective at the exact moment that a child changes her needs and when it comes to a skill that a toddler who should be moving away from this stage, tides have turned. Behaviors that were typically gone by the age of three two or three generations ago are now accepted as appropriate for years beyond that age. We would be worried if our child doesn’t seem to be growing according to the physical stages of development that are expected for their age. We devour information about the milestones for the first years. Parents worry about so much of our children’s development but are we overlooking the importance of meeting appropriate social and emotional milestones?
In much the same way that every other focal period of human development produces a vital component to our overall being, each stage of emotional development comes at a crucial time for the next stage to grow from. We still need our first-built parts. We need our brainstems, our spinal cords, our abilities to control our shoulders so that we can use our fingers. And we will always need to trust, to feel loved, to know that we are accepted, to feel that our work is valuable, to identify ourselves within our groups, to be socially effective, to be proud of what we have done.