Tantrums, Enough Un-said!

Tantrums. Everybody told me they were coming – friends, parents, caregiving books. But as my son approached two without so much as a long whine, I breathed a sigh of relief and figured I had dodged that developmental mandate. On the morning of his second birthday, like clockwork, he had his first tantrum at gymnastics.

I turned to a book we’d bought a while ago – The Happiest Toddler on the Block, written by a pediatrician (Karp, 2008). Dr. Karp’s idea is that toddlers are little more than “cave people” trapped in human bodies (cavepeople here, I think, meaning pre-linguistic Neanderthals). They have frequent outbursts because they are frustrated and out of place. They are not sure how to manage their extreme emotions, or express themselves without command of complex language. This assumption takes for granted that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – or in other words, as Haeckal proposed with his embyronic studies, lifespan development follows the pattern of our species’ evolutionary change.

Are toddlers really like a different species, incapable at times of communicating with other humans? I believe this to be an intended overstatement of Dr. Karp, meant to illustrate a point to parents: your kids really aren’t fully developed – we see this all the time with mastery of gross and fine motor skills. All of these undeveloped skills can be traced back to an unlikely source: the size of the human pelvis.

Humans have a smaller pelvis than that of their closest relatives (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Orangutans), an artifact of adopting a bipedal stance at least 4 million years ago. The restrictions imposed by the smaller pelvis of humans has long reaching effects. Human infants are born much more prematurely than those of our closest living relatives. These helpless infants are more akin to developing fetuses than infants – for example, they cannot cling to parents and they cannot breastfeed without assistance such as being positioned correctly. Further, childbirth is more of a chore for humans, and often requires assistance. In fact, some scholars have proposed that midwifery, and not prostitution, is the oldest “profession” (Rosenberg & Trevathan, 2003).

So what on earth has a small pelvis and underdeveloped brain to do with tantrums? One part of the brain that takes up to two decades to develop is the prefrontal cortex (Diamond, 2002), the part of the brain essential for decision-making, planning, and judgement. Another key cognitive function of the pre-frontal cortex is the ability to self-regulate (Berger, Kofman, Livneh & Henik, 2007). Around 18-30 months, children begin to delay gratification for small time periods (e.g. minutes) and follow directives such as for cleaning up; however, they are still not ably to plan or use rules to guide their behavior until preschool age. In terms of attention, a 3-year old will get quite focussed on one aspect of a task (e.g. when sorting cards based on color or shape and asked to say the color) without being able to redirect their attention to a new aspect when instructed (e.g. switch to shape). Between 3-5 years, there is a shift towards frontally mediated skills, such as inhibition, planning, and switching attention.

While other features of brain development are involved in why a young child has a hard time managing frustration, the pre-frontal lobes are a pretty good place to start one’s investigation, rather than comparing a child to another species. Just as men aren’t from Mars, and women aren’t from Venus, children aren’t cavepeople locked in a linguistically capable brain and body. Kids need to flex those skills for attention, planning, inhibition, and following instructions to fully develop the cognitive capacity to master such essential skills towards regulating one’s emotions and avoiding tantrums. And understanding key features of our evolution and development provide quite refreshing answers to everyday plagues, such as tantrums.

Which leads to my next post, in which I’ll get around to my own research on whining. Bad habit? Primitive brains? Or a common element shared by us all – regardless of age or gender?

If you have an explanation for tantrums that you’d like to share, please leave a comment!

Further Reading:

Berger, A., Kofman, O., Livneh, U., & Henik, A. (2007). Multidisciplinary perspectives on attention and the development of self-regulation. Progress in Neurobiology, 82, 256-286.

Diamond, A. (2002). Normal development of prefrontal cortex from birth to young adulthood: Cognitive functions, anatomy, and biochemistry. In D. T. Stuss & R. T. Knight (Eds.) Principles of frontal lobe function (pp. 466-503). New York: Oxford University Press.

Karp, H. (2008). The Happiest toddler on the block: How to eliminate tantrums and raise a patient, respectful, and cooperative one- to four-year-old (revised edition). New York: Bantam.

Rosenberg, K., & Trevathan, W. (2003). Birth, obstetrics and human evolution. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 109(11), 1119-1206. DOI: 10.1046/j.1471-0528.2002.00010.x

Rosemarie Sokol Chang

About Rosemarie Sokol Chang

Rosemarie Sokol Chang is an evolutionist trained as a psychological scientist. She is the editor of EvoS: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium; the creator of the EvoS Consortium website and the EvoS Blogs; and co-founder of the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology. She also has been involved in the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society since its inception. She recently edited and contributed to the book Relating to Environments: A New Look at Umwelt. Evolution Matters is a recurring blog focused on concepts and evidence of evolution by natural selection.
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2 Responses to Tantrums, Enough Un-said!

  1. Rose Rose says:

    Good question Ms. Finn! There isn’t much cross-cultural work on whining or tantrums. Mark Flinn had noted whining in I believe a Caribbean locale. My suspicion is that whining is like crying – in some groups, such as among the !Kung San, babies on average cry as frequently as in the U.S., but not for a long with each cry because their needs are met immediately, as opposed to being left to “cry it out.” I would wager that whining too exists, but not at the level of escalation you might find with a tantrum. This area is ripe for research.

  2. Avatar mfinn says:

    Question: do they find tantrums occurring in the same way cross-culturally, or is it more of a Western idea?

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