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Toddlers Know Exactly What They're Doing When They Have a Tantrum

Crying girl
Photograph by Getty Images/Moment Open

Researchers have discovered that toddlers understand the effect their tantrums have on adults. They are aware that they can change the volume of sounds they make to invoke various responses.

A study published in the Journal of Cognition and Development examines children's ability to recognize and process different sounds. It focuses on kids at toddler age, entering their "terrible twos."

"Scientists know a lot about visual perspective-taking, and children's understanding of what we are seeing. But we know very little about how children know what we are hearing," said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

The "terrible twos" happen when children are at a stage of development between not wanting to rely on their parents so much but also not yet being old enough to be independent. They wish to move faster and communicate better, but they are not mature enough to do so. Their frustration manifests itself with notorious temper tantrums and lots of no's in their vocabulary.

It was previously believed that children were too young to understand sounds and their meaning, leading to never-ending screaming sessions, but this new study proves that is not the case.

"What we think is happening is that by age 2, kids have already learned from their own experiences about sound. Or, in the case of kids who have siblings, probably their siblings have taught them a thing or two about loud and soft sounds," Williamson said.

Toddlers can understand how their behavior influences others, especially their parents, and they use that knowledge to their advantage. Because of this understanding, parents should not feel that it's impossible to get their children to stop yelling.

"It's developmentally appropriate to talk to 2-year-olds about hearing and ask them to be quiet. It's not out of their grasp to understand this," said lead author Rebecca Williamson of Georgia State University. "Whether a toddler chooses to be quiet is different."

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