How to uncover the *real* reason behind your child's tantrum

They are not trying to make it personal.

How to uncover the *real* reason behind your child's tantrum

"He does it for no reason!" If I had to pick one comment most frequently associated with challenging child behaviors, it might be that one.

He hits his sister.

She has a tantrum over putting on a jacket.

He cries when asked to brush his teeth.

She gets out of her bed 47 times before 10 pm.

Often, a child's behavior seems to come from nowhere, without rhyme or reason. It's easy, in that situation, to take it personally. It's the only reason that makes sense.

They're doing it simply to make us upset.

But as a child development specialist, I believe there is always a reason. Maybe not an obvious one, or even a "good" one, but there is always a reason.

Recognizing that reason helps us stop taking their behavior personally and start doing something that can address it.

Taking a closer look

When we look at a challenging behavior as an isolated event, it certainly doesn't make much sense. But just like in the dramatic detective shows I grew up on (anyone else's childhood contain a healthy diet of Matlock, Columbo and Murder She Wrote?) it's often the tiniest of details that suddenly make everything clear. The timestamp on the receipt, the button on the sidewalk, the contents of the refrigerator. BAM—the case is cracked wide open.

Likewise, paying attention to the details of what's going on before and after a child's maddening behaviors can open your eyes to factors that you hadn't even considered. (This CARE Observation Sheet is one tool that helps untangle the mystery of challenging behaviors.)

For example, my preschool-aged son once refused to go with his carpool to school. I was frustrated, to say the least. Why was he choosing to be difficult? Why was he suddenly taking a regular part of our routine and having an all-out tantrum over it?

I felt like he was challenging me personally.

But then, I set my personal feeling aside and looked more carefully at the situation. I searched for clues like a good detective. What I discovered was that he had been reading a book in the back seat of the minivan the last time he rode in the carpool. With all the winding roads between school and home, he had begun to feel car sick, and in his young mind that had everything to do with the carpool and not with the other factors he could control.

Rather than digging into this power struggle fueled tug-of-war we were having—making the issue all about me and my authority—I was able to find the real cause and help reassure him that there were things we could do to address his worries.

When looking for causes behind behaviors, it often helps to break things down by head, hands and heart. These three categories, along with good observation, can help us get to what's really behind the behavior.


The first area to consider is the child's brain development. Frustrating behaviors suddenly become clear when we realize what's going on inside those growing minds.

First of all, we know that the brain has three basic parts as detailed by Dr. Paul McLean and outlined by the renown Gesell Institute of Child Development. At the brain stem, we have the "old brain" or "lizard brain" as some call it. This area of the brain is primarily concerned with our survival. It's responsible for our "fight, flight or freeze" response and our automatic physical responses like heart rate and breathing.

One step up from the reptile brain, we have the mammalian brain or the limbic brain. This area is not only responsible for our motivation and emotions, but with connecting them with our memories and experiences so that we can use those associations to make decisions in the future.

Our most advanced part of the brain is the cortex, which is referred to as the "new mammal" or "human brain." This upper part of the brain is where our logical thinking takes place. The prefrontal cortex, in particular, serves as the brain's filter, controlling our impulses and offering measured judgment before our actions.

As you read that last description of the brain, and look at your young child who just poured her juice on the cat and then had a meltdown because she was out of juice and her cat was sticky, you may not be surprised to hear that the prefrontal cortex is still developing well into the teen years.

Young children are easily overwhelmed emotionally, and that seems to trigger the spiraling meltdown that follows. Neuroimaging shows us that this heightened emotional state can trigger what is referred to as an "affective filter," blocking access to their developing advanced brain and leaving us to work with the parts of the brain that are primarily focused on emotions and survival.

That's why Dr. Dan Seigel refers to these emotional states as "flipping your lid." The upper brain is no longer included in the mental process. We can reason and rationalize until we're blue in the face, but we won't get through until we first address our child's emotions and help them connect and find calm.

Additionally, this ongoing brain development drives curiosity and a need for independence. These needs fuel learning and growth, but can also lead to your toddler's desires to "do-it-self" or to unload your entire cupboard to see precisely how that lazy Susan works.

All of this means young children need us to offer scaffolding and support and set expectations that are appropriate to where they are in their brain development.


Hands represent the skills our kids need to practice and develop in order to be successful in a social or behavioral sense. As mentioned, their brains are still developing, and they need our support in the process.

Sometimes we forget that children aren't born with the social skills and scripts needed to navigate our tricky social culture. Those skills need to be modeled and taught.

As we carefully observe behavior and look for clues to their causes, we may notice that our child needs to be taught how to ask to enter play situations (instead of throwing toys at their siblings), or needs to be coached through how to ask for a turn (instead of taking toys or throwing a fit). Or perhaps they need to be helped to recognize personal space or recognize facial cues from their playmates ("Look at her face. I don't think this is fun for her.")

These simple skills may be second nature to us, but our kids often need them to be taught directly.


Last, but not least, as we look for causes behind the behavior, we have to examine our child's basic needs. Going back to the parts of their developing brain, a child's basic needs for survival, safety and emotional security come before their advanced logical processes and sound decision-making.

Often a child's behavior may be triggered by their needs for attention, love, belonging, being heard and understood, and being safe. This category can also include other basic needs like hunger, comfort, and sleep. (Because nobody does "hangry" like 2-year-old who missed a snack.)

When we let go of the idea that our kids are just trying to make us crazy, we begin to see behavior clues pointing to the real causes. And with those clues in hand, we can see behavior as communication, telling us where to offer our help and support rather than as a direct attack on our sanity.

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A few years ago, while my wife's baby bump got bigger and my daddy reading list grew longer, I felt cautiously optimistic that this parenthood thing would, somehow, suddenly click one day. The baby would come, instincts would kick in, and the transition from established couple to a new family would be tiring but not baffling.

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