Family, Kids & Relationships

Science Explains Why Toddlers Get Mad (Even When You Give Them What They Want)

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Experts often say that one way to avoid toddler tantrums is to offer choices. Many tantrums are a result of feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by their environment; having choices invites cooperation and gives toddlers a much-needed sense of control, which can help sidestep a meltdown before it occurs.

However, every parent experiences the exact opposite from time to time. You give your child a “this or that” choice, such as, “Would you like your red cup, or the blue cup?” They make their selection, you honor their wish, and then they have a tantrum—even though they got exactly what they asked for.

Believe it or not, there’s a reason for this seemingly illogical behavior.

It can be frustrating, no doubt, but at least science might now have an explanation. In a recent study published on PLOS ONE, researchers at the University of California, Irvine discovered that toddlers do have strong preferences when we give them a choice, but maybe not for the reasons we think.

Researchers asked 24 one- to two-year-olds a series of 20 questions, each with two options. They discovered that the kids overwhelmingly chose the second, more recent option. They refer to this as “recency bias”—the tendency for young children to pick whatever option they heard last. This shows kids are often making selections based simply on the order we presented the options, rather than reflecting a true desire. 

If asked the right way, toddlers will choose broccoli over cake, UCI-led study finds.

With this perspective, it’s a little easier to understand why a toddler might have an emotional outburst after being given the blue cup, even if that’s what they claimed to want.

Brain development could be the driving force behind this phenomenon.

Before the age of three, children have a limited memory capacity. As a result, the study suggests, toddlers have a hard time juggling multiple ideas at once. They simply respond with the choice they remember best.

Yes, it can be frustrating—but parents can use recency bias to their advantage, too.

The study claims to have important implications for other research done on young subjects. Test results could be skewed if scientists assume that children fully understand choices that they’re given. To correct for recency bias, researchers should ask each question twice, flipping the order of the options.

Recency bias can have parenting implications as well. For example, it can result in murkiness when you ask questions like, “Did you hit your sister on accident or on purpose?” A child might respond “on purpose,” in this case, without having any idea what those abstract concepts really mean.

However, there are positives as well. As the name of the study itself (“Cake or broccoli?”) implies, parents can use recency bias to encourage their toddlers to select one option over another. Just make sure to pose the preferred response last.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.