There’s a reason kids freak out over things adults are able to take in stride, and it’s called the frontal lobe—a.k.a. the part of the brain that regulates, inhibits and prioritizes our reactions. And it takes a full 25 years to fully develop. “I tell all of my parents that that is their job—to be their child’s frontal lobe,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist. When it comes to the most common meltdown triggers, she explains that your little one is a lot like a Neanderthal: If you’ve ruled out hunger, tiredness and a need for the bathroom, here are other common reasons your little one may be throwing a fit.
Sensory discomfort Nobody likes a clothing tag sticking in their back, uncomfortable footwear or materials that feel scratchy. The difference is that when an adult is dealing with this sort of discomfort, we can place it in context (as in, it’s not the end of the world), and push inconvenient irritations to the back of our minds. “A kid can’t do that,” says Kolari. “There is no putting discomfort in context.” Which is why getting a four-year-old into jeans may not be a battle worth fighting.
Wanting and not getting Whether it’s not receiving the cute new Beanie Baby at the toy store or being denied one more episode of Peppa Pig, when a child’s will is stunted, they have a limbic response, which means the part of the brain that is responsible for detecting danger is kicking in. “They are literally having a fight-or-flight response,” says Kolari. This means their brains are telling them the aforementioned Beanie Baby is a life or death matter. “You are talking to a tiny caveman—there is no point in reasoning. Instead, validate whatever it is they are feeling, which will take them out of fight mode.”
The surprising upside to your kid’s brutal temper tantrums Overstimulation “Kids are not little adults—their brains aren’t capable of multi-tasking.” Even if it’s good stimuli, little people just can’t manage and organize all that data—and just like your computer when you want it to run too many programs at the same time, they are likely to crash.
Transitions The frontal lobe understands the concept of time and temporal references, whereas children are like tiny mindfulness practitioners—devoted to living in the now. “Whatever they’re doing in that moment is everything to them—they are happy and they are comfortable. And when you try to take them out of it, they slam on the brakes,” says Kolari.
Changes in plans The ability to adapt and reason is—you guessed it—yet another skill set that comes from the frontal lobe. “If a young person thinks they are going to a friend’s house to play and then they can’t, it’s that same fight-or-flight response,” says Kolari. And again, reasoning won’t help. “Even if you tell them they can’t go because the friend is sick, they’re not going to be able to understand that in the moment in a way that makes them feel better.”