Thursday, September 6

Temper Tantrums and their Scientific Reasons

A temper tantrum can be an unnerving event whether acted out by your toddler or your boss. The latter is his or her parents' problem; however the toddler's case deserves a more empathic approach. Temper tantrums are not so bad if you can understand what causes it. This will help you prevent or tread wisely around situations that may bring on one.

So what causes temper tantrums in kids? The usual suspects are hunger, thirst, tiredness, feeling sleepy, feeling unattended, feeling uncomfortable, loss of control over a situation/powerlessness, fall in blood sugar, or neurotic behaviour on the part of the parent such as anger, anxiety, exceedingly hurried pace, long chats on the phone while the kid feels neglected. If you can rule all this out, we need to consider other factors that may bring about a temper tantrum.

Some Scientific Causes for a Temper Tantrum

Sensory Processing Disorder

If you believe your child is throwing tantrums on a regular basis and for no earthly reason, you could consider evaluating to see if he has a problem with processing sensory input. In plain English this means having trouble interpreting what your senses tell you. Kids with this problem can be overly sensitive to stimuli and show excessive response to sensations. They may find normal touch, sights, sounds, and movements unbearable that other kids may have no problem with. They may feel overwhelmed by high ceiling and infrastructure as well as high noise levels. You can get more information about sensory processing disorder if you need to check this out.

Magnesium deficiency

magnesium deficiency and toddler tantrums
Photograph Copyright mrmac04
Children deficient in magnesium may be prone to hyperactivity and be unmanageable, leading eventually to erratic behaviour and temper tantrums. Magnesium is easily lost in overheated indoor areas and high stress situations. Those on a gluten-free diet may not be getting adequate amounts of magnesium in their diet when they cut out whole grains and cereals which are good sources of the mineral. A diet rich in magnesium has a calming effect on the nerves and muscles besides various other benefits. 

Omega-3 and Vitamin D levels

temper tantrums may be caused by a lack of Vitamin D
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Children who are low on omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin D are also known to have more behavioural issues such as temper tantrums. There are tests available to ascertain these levels. While fish oil may help, any supplements are best taken only on the advice of a registered medical practitioner.

General diet and nutrition

A well-balanced nutritious diet at regular feeding times is a necessity for the overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of a young child. If this is not available to the child, she may exhibit behavioural problems and be prone to temper tantrums. Encouraging healthy eating habits in your kids is a huge step in promoting sensible behaviour.

Sugar spikes and falls

Sugar spikes and drops may cause temper tantrums
Photograph Copyright Darren
Young children who are fed high levels of sugar in their daily diet have been shown to exhibit hyperactivity and violent behaviour. A young child's body mechanism is unable to process large amounts of sugar and maintain a balance. A diet that is mostly soft drinks and food processed out of refined sugar, white flour, and trans fat will cause spikes in glucose absorption followed by dramatic falls. A child whose staple diet is made up of these substances will experience withdrawal symptoms if suddenly denied it. This will lead to the mother of all tantrums that appear to come out of nowhere.

Fluorescent lighting

Temper tantrums may be triggered by fluorescent lighting
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Fluorescent lighting in supermarkets, class rooms, gyms, and other places may trigger behavioural issues in some kids. This is easily discerned in kids who are happy little souls at home, but act out only on shopping trips or at school. Fluorescent lighting has a flickering pattern that may not be noticed by all, at least consciously. But some individuals are especially sensitive to this flickering and may be disturbed by it. 

Head aches, buzzing in the ears, anxiety, difficulty focusing, and eye strain are some symptoms. Young children who are sensitive to this may find it unbearable and be propelled into tantrum behaviour. Toddlers, with their underdeveloped nervous system, are even more likely to be affected, even more so if they're strapped to their prams facing up at the lights. 

Cleaning solvents

strong odours and toxic chemical cause temper tantrums
Photograph Copyright Xandert
The strong odours left behind by cleaning solvents and other chemical materials may cause disturbances in children's behavioural patterns. Even after the odours have evaporated, the VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that are the actual culprits will continue to be dispersed into the air. When breathed in, these toxic compounds can mess with the brain and nervous system and cause those sensitive to it to react violently.

Food allergies

Allergic reaction to certain preservatives, artificial food colouring, dairy, wheat, or soy products may present in the form of headaches, stomach aches, nausea, and feelings of disconnectedness as well as temper tantrums in young children. Flaming cheeks and ears are a giveaway in this situation.


temper tantrums may be caused by the use of antibiotics
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Young children who are on antibiotics may be deficient in good bacteria in the gut flora. This may find them deficient in minerals such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, and selenium. This deficiency may cause them to be emotionally volatile and very prone to temper tantrums.


Children who may have had to have anesthesia as part of medical procedures before age three may have behavioural problems later on due to its effect on their brains. Studies have shown a link between anesthesia and behaviour but this need not be taken as conclusive. What you need to do is be aware that this could be a possibility when you're unable to identify other causes. Just knowing this will equip you to deal compassionately with your child's tantrums and take appropriate measures to prevent it. 

Developmental stage of a toddlers' brain

temper tantrums may be caused by confusion and overwhelming situations
Photograph Copyright

The prefrontal cortex area of a toddler's brain has not reached full development. The prefrontal cortex is the thinking brain. At this stage a toddler's actions are governed by the limbic system which is the emotional brain that knows no reason. It plunges into action without thought. This is why it is pointless to reason with your toddler, especially in the middle of a tantrum when the limbic system is all fired up.

For this reason, parents are the thinking brain of a child often well into adolescence and even young adulthood. In the case of a toddler, it is the parent who uses logic and thinking capacity to guide her actions and keep attuned to her wants and needs. Identifying and fulfilling the needs and wants of a toddler using the prefrontal cortex which is, let's hope, fully developed in an adult, the parent acts as the guide for a little being fully in the power of an immature limbic system. This needs to be so until children can be shown how to regulate their mental activities through meditation techniques and other helpful measures. 

If all this seems a bit too complicated, here's the gist. A parent's job is not just to feed and clothe the child but also to think and act for the child; be the child's brain. This happens again in old age, but in reverse. In old age, the prefrontal cortex area of the parent's brain shrinks and results in diminished thinking capacity due to senility or other age-related dysfunction. And then, it is the turn of the adult child or a caregiver who has to be your brain and think and act for you. This is payback time for you when you get to launch into temper tantrums of your own.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope this proves helpful in some way in your childrearing. I'd appreciate you leaving a comment as to how this may have helped you, or not. Cheers!

Related Posts that You may Like 
Ultimate Guide to Temper Tantrums
How to Behave When Your Child Throws a Tantrum
What Causes Temper Tantrums in Children


  1. Really eye opening stuff. I'm the father of a 2 yr old and a 7 yr old. My toddler throws the occasional tantrum and sometimes I've never been able to understand what makes him do that. Thank you for this amazing stuff. And do keep writing.

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Joey. Keep reading. I've got some more posts planned on the topic. See you around.


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