Family Matters

The New Science Behind Children’s Temper Tantrums

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There are distinct advantages to being a writer covering parenting, who just happens to have three kids from whom to draw inspiration. On Monday, within minutes of my editor asking me to write about a new study that scientifically diagrams the patterns of children’s temper tantrums, my very own 4-year-old offered herself up as Exhibit A.

The study, published in the journal Emotion, finds that the “vocalizations” involved in tantrums — the screaming, shrieking, wailing and general unhappiness that make up a meltdown — actually follow a rhythm. Far from being the flailing, unprogrammed events we’d previously assumed they were, tantrums actually have recognizable peaks and valleys that can be analyzed in hopes of cultivating a better response from parents and teachers.

To capture the sounds of tantrums as they occurred, researchers at the University of Minnesota and the University of Connecticut concocted a funky onesie that incorporated a wireless microphone and a recording device. Toddlers thus outfitted generated vocal evidence of more than 100 temper tantrums. When researchers replayed the audio, they discovered specific patterns — yelling and screaming, for instance, went hand in hand.

According to NPR, that’s no surprise:

“Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota. “Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort — and these also hang together.”

But where one age-old theory of tantrums might suggest that meltdowns begin in anger (yells and screams) and end in sadness (cries and whimpers), Potegal found that the two emotions were more deeply intertwined.

“The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect,” Potegal said. “In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.”

Based on the sound recordings of kids’ breakdowns, the researchers found that sadness happens throughout a tantrum, and is punctuated by intense bouts of anger — i.e., yelling and screaming.

MORE: Kids Behaving Badly? Blame It on Mom

I was able to witness that in my daughter, who was none too pleased when I told her she could munch on fruit as a before-dinner snack. When she rejected that, I offered up the lunch remnants of her mac and cheese with edamame, which she’d happily eaten for dinner the night before. That’s when she lost it.

“It wasn’t even that much good warmed up,” she screamed at me. “It’s yucky in my lunch. It wasn’t cheesy. It was yucky brown.” She sobbed. She stomped. She threw the dish towels on the floor and tossed toys out of the toy bin. Her tears left streaky tracks on her cheeks. “I always have fruit and I’m not going to have fruit today,” she vowed. She was seriously ticked off.

But instead of trying to make her stop screaming and hurling all 36 pounds of herself around the living room — which never works, by the way — I pretty much stayed silent. I’d learned from the research that the quickest way to defuse a tantrum is to do absolutely nothing — to wait for the peaks of anger to pass — so I continued tending the evening meal of turkey chili.

She flailed around on the couch for seven or eight minutes while I stirred. Meanwhile, my internal temperature was probably on par with the simmering dinner. I really wanted to make her stop screaming, so at one point, I said as much. “Stop crying already,” I beseeched her.

“I caaaan’t,” she wailed. Alas, ending a tantrum is the purview of a child and not her parents.

MORE: The First Real-Time Study of Parents Spanking Their Kids

Potegal advises moms and dads to ignore their freaking-out kiddo, and soon enough, the fury will subside, leaving a whole bunch of sadness. That’s when parents can swoop in. Sad children seek comfort, and sure enough, that’s just what mine did.

“Mama,” she cried, summoning me to the couch where she’d thrown herself down. “Silky,” she said, willing her beloved security blanket to appear.

Within minutes of me scooping her up and coaxing her to help me dump chili powder and cumin into the pot, her breathing had slowed and she was her usual perky, quirky, funny self. I’d just watched science unfold right before my eyes — and I had some real-time anecdotes to incorporate into my latest post.

Check out NPR’s excellent piece on the new research here.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

1 comments
MyParentingCoac
MyParentingCoac

It doesn't take research to know that a child's...or an adult's tantrum is based out of frustration. For many toddlers that frustration is based on the inability to communicate effectively.  Instead of asking your child to stop screaming try letting her know that you know she doesn't want fruit.