New Research On Tantrums Will Save You A Lot Of Grief

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What if you could observe your child’s tantrums with the detachment of a scientist? What if you knew that tantrums follow a somewhat predictable pattern and that there are things that you should or shouldn’t do to speed things along? Recent research by psychologists at the University of Minnesota and the University of Connecticut provides answers to these questions.

NPR reports that the researchers outfitted toddlers with onesies equipped with a tiny microphone that recorded their tantrums. Over time, they collected audio samples of more than 100 tantrums and were able to identify the “flow” of the typical tantrum. (I’m sure that listening to 100 children having tantrums was so much fun.)

They found that toddlers’ “vocalizations” appear in predictable patterns and the different sounds “emerge and fade in a definite rhythm in the course of a tantrum,” writes Shankar Vedantam for NPR. Knowing what a “normal” tantrum looks like can help parents and doctors determine if a meltdown is just an ordinary I-wanted-the-blue-cup screamfest or a sign of an underlying disorder.

When the researchers analyzed the recordings, they found that vocalizations like screaming and yelling, or whimpering and crying, go together. This won’t be a surprise to anyone who’s witnessed a red-faced 3-year-old in the supermarket spread-eagled in the cereal aisle. But they also found that the oft-repeated wisdom that tantrums have two stages—anger and then sadness—is incorrect. The anger and the sadness are closely intertwined, even simultaneous. The screaming and yelling that indicates the peaks of anger is interspersed with the sad sounds.

So, yeah, all very interesting, but, uh, what to do when it’s your kid sobbing because “there’s too much dinner” as my son did? Vedantam writes, “The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible, [the study’s co-author, Dr. Potegal] said, was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger, the scientists said, was to do nothing. Of course, that isn’t easy for parents or caregivers to do.”

Dr. Potegal identifies anger “traps,” moments in which parents might be tempted to engage with the child to solve the problem, even if the problem is totally nonsensical. One child, Katrina, had a tantrum because she, uh, didn’t want her feet anymore, and the mother, hoping to jolly her out of her pique, suggested they get the scissors and cut them off, which sent the child into further paroxysms of rage.

Or another time, Katrina lost her shit because she wanted to sit at the corner of a round table. (If you want to see this particular tantrum, the video is at the NPR link, above—always fascinating to watch how someone else’s kid has a meltdown.) It seems that ignoring the peaks of anger—not even offering comfort—is the quickest way past them and recognizing that the moment the kid throws herself on the floor is the moment you’re probably on the downslope.

The Mayo Clinic suggests first ignoring and then time-outs as a way to deal with tantrums, but time-outs have never worked for us, largely because an enraged child won’t stay on the “naughty chair.” We end up returning him there over and over, and that’s basically engaging with him in his rage. And frankly it’s enraging to me to be physically battling with a very strong toddler, trying to get him to stay put for his time-out. We’ve had better luck with just putting him in his (childproofed) room for a couple of minutes until the screaming subsides, and then offering him comfort.

Observing tantrums the way a scientist would might be an interesting thought exercise. At least, it could keep you occupied during a seemingly endless meltdown. But the most comforting thing about this research was the reminder that all tantrums do eventually end, and both parent and child can breathe a sigh of relief. As Vedantam says, “No one can stay that angry for long. It’s exhausting.”

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