FINALLY: scientists have decided tantrums are worth studying

Updated Oct 12 2015
A tantrum… statue? Photo by Forest Runner, used under Creative Commons license.
Annie recently shared an NPR article called What's Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams.

The opening paragraph really got me: scientists want to study TANTRUMS?! Can I get a HELL YES? Study on, people:

Children's temper tantrums are widely seen as many things: the cause of profound helplessness among parents; a source of dread for airline passengers stuck next to a young family; a nightmare for teachers. But until recently, they had not been considered a legitimate subject for science.

Now research suggests that, beneath all the screams and kicking and shouting, lies a phenomenon that is entirely amenable to scientific dissection. Tantrums turn out to have a pattern and rhythm to them. Once understood, researchers say, this pattern can help parents, teachers and even hapless bystanders respond more effectively to temper tantrums — and help clinicians tell the difference between ordinary tantrums, which are a normal part of a child's development, and those that may be warning signals of an underlying disorder.

The key to a new theory of tantrums lies in a detailed analysis of the sounds that toddlers make during tantrums. In a new paper published in the journal Emotion, scientists found that different toddler sounds – or "vocalizations" – emerge and fade in a definite rhythm in the course of a tantrum.

The jist of the piece is that scientists are saying the best way to deal with a tantrum is to leave your child alone while she's angry, and then be there to comfort her once the anger phase passes. They acknowledge that for many parents this is easier said than done, which has me wondering — how do you guys cope with tantrums? What do you think of this advice?

  1. This is amazing and I hope the results come soon, as my 18-month-old has been OUT OF CONTROL lately. I'd love to see what's "normal" and what's a sign of an underlying problem.

    Any ideas from the Offbeat community? At what point does a typical tantrum become a sign that something more serious is going on? Frequency? Intensity? Both?

    • So here are our experience:

      Jasper didn't start REALLY having tantrums until after his 2nd birthday — somewhere between 2 and 2 1/2 he started having actual trantrums, involving screaming and whining and etc. We've always implemented time-out, and have a pretty strict no-tantrum-behavior policy. Basically, as soon as they start, he goes in time out.

      We've also taught him to calm down by taking deep breaths. This took FOREVER to work, but now (he's.. 33 months. Took a second to add up, I haven't used months to tell his age in forever!) it usually does. The thing that REALLY drove it in is that when he starts to throw a tantrum, one or both of us will sit him down in his timeout chair, look at him right in the eye, and say, "Hey, Jasper? You are a great kid, but right now your behavior is really stressing me/us out. I'm/We're going to go sit on the couch and take a deep breath to calm down, and when I'm/we're finished, I'll/we'll come back and talk to you." I think him seeing us physically calm down is what really taught him that it works — and the bonus is that it ALSO helps us get through his tantrums.

      We've also learned to be super consistent every time he has one. If we're in the grocery store, we find a place for time out. If we're at a restaurant and he won't calm down, we usually get our food to go and leave, but that's because neither of us love being the parents with a screaming kid in tow.

      As for how long we let them go on, we found that what works for our family is to do time out when the tantrum starts. We used to try to let him get it out of his system in 1-2 minutes like a lot of people recommend, but it didn't really do much.. they just kept going on and on. Now, he goes in his chair, and if one of us has to sit in front of him and make sure he stays in (we try to not make eye contact with him, because then he tries pleading). We usually have him sit in there for 1-2 minutes, and we always ask if he knows why he's in time out at the end so that he understands what behavior led to it. AND we end time out with big hugs.:)

      • Another thing that works if you're out with family or friends & don't want to have to go home is if you or someone you are with drove there, go take the time out in the car. Then you can re-join the group when everything has calmed down. If no one drove to the restaurant, you can opt to take a walk, depending on your child's age. These are both options that my cousin uses with both of her boys, and it seems to work well. An added bonus is that her oldest now associates his car seat with a calming, soothing place to go for comfort. I don't know that every kid will have that reaction, but it's definitely nice to care for a child who really enjoys getting into a car seat!

  2. Amazingly, this is pretty much how my in-laws dealt with my husband's childhood tantrums. Downside: If you ignore your kids' tantrums in public places, strangers will probably think you are a bad parent, but there's no real reason to care about that.

    My parents modified this by bodily removing us from the situation first (although that probably counts as "attention").

  3. This is awesome! It's great that this got the funding and support to actually be studied. For me, the results point right to the concept of kids learning to feel their feelings, then process them once the intensity has passed. Maybe this will eventually lead us to a way of turning the terrible 2's (and 3's) into the terrible 2 months!

  4. O MY GOSH HOP ON IT SCIENTISTS!!!!
    As for me and my family, we know ALL about tantrums. My 3 year old got my temper–which has been an excellent lesson in taming my own–so he has A LOT of fits. Most of the time it's when he wants to do something he's not supposed to–duh.
    I ignore him for the most part though, because then he doesn't get attention for the tantrum. After he's cooled down, we talk about it and either come to a compromise or I explain why he can't have/do something THIS MINUTE.
    In public though, ignoring a screaming child is hard because people expect you to shut them up…NOW. So I carry him somewhere or put him in the cart and ignore him. He stops quick too!
    And when it's really bad (read: he's TIRED) we have him take some deep breaths to calm down, then lay him down for a nap!

    SO YA best advice is to ignore them while they're angry and then let them know they're loved after it's passed.
    Well, that and making sure they're not hungry, tired, cold or too hot…..but even super mom can't do that ALL the time!

  5. Tantrums were explained to me as emotion so intense a child doesn't know how to handle it just has to let it out with the best possible course to let the energy dissipate.

    • same here. I've always heard it explained that most children at that age do not have the vocabulary or emotional development to be able to express themselves as accurately and timely as they would like to – resulting in intense frustration that can build up into tantrums. This theory stems from a general (possibly unscientific) acknowledgement that tantrums tend to be less frequent in children who develop communication skills faster than the average toddler. I agree that this may be a fairly common reason for tantrums, but I think there are probably other reasons as well. I'd be interested to learn what other factors play into the intensity of tantrums in toddlers, and I'd also be interested to learn that if the communication theory is valid, would learning baby-sign early on reduce the frequency or severity of tantrums by helping the child to express themselves more accurately and with more satisfaction than they otherwise might be able to?

      I am excited to see what comes from this research!

      • I wonder about that too. My daughter is very nearly two, very talkative, and talks about feelings a lot. I wasn't expecting that so soon. But, because I know it works with older kids, when she was upset, I always tried to help her identify her feelings. (She just started saying "I'm feeling sad." Before she was imitating my speech and saying "Seems like feeling sad" which was hilarious :D) So, I guess we'll find out in the next year whether that will prevent tantrums. For now, her saying how she feels is a lot more pleasant for both of us than grunting, whining, and screaming! I feel a lot more compassion for her when I'm not trying to cope with her outburst.

      • I don't think that's 100% true. I've noticed children with easy-going natures tend to have few if any tantrums, even if they don't have language. I've had children who have little to no language with easy temperments not get angry/have a tantrum even when I deny them something they really want.

  6. Great question! Our son is now 28 months, and he has one or two tantrums a week. Usually it has tiredness or hunger at its root, and also some form of frustration or anger. For example, the worst tantrum lately involved a puzzle he was trying to work by himself, and he refused help, but he also was having difficulty by himself and he just went nuts.

    Our approach so far is to just wait it out. A big big goal of mine is to help my son know that all feelings, even negative ones, are valid. I grew up in a home that never wanted to see negative feelings, and so I want him to know it is OK to be frustrated and angry. I read in a great book I recently read, How to Talk so your Kids will Listen and Listen so Your Kids will Talk, that a home where lots of negative emotions are expressed is a very happy home.

    That said, he also has to learn healthy ways to express and deal with anger and frustration (and to be honest, sometimes *I* am still working on that, I think in part from not being allowed to do so as a child).

    So, it's a tough balance to validate the feeling, while helping shape the expression of the feeling in more healthy directions.

    So far we just try to give him a word to name his feeling (hopefully eventually he will say "I am mad" instead of just melting down), to tell him that we are there for him if he really needs us, and to either try to distract and redirect, or if it keeps up, ignore him. Also, sometimes he just wants to be held, and we do that. Other times, he just wants to be left alone, and we do that.

    One thing I tried recently — from the How to Talk book — was just get out paper and a red crayon and ask him to show me on paper how mad he was. He drew a bunch of red lines. I don't know if it was the distraction, or the validation of anger, but he calmed down.

    Anyway, this stuff is hard hard hard. One doesn't want to reward the tantrum, but there can be real, important emotional things underlying the tantrum that we should acknowledge.

    The How to Talk book also says it is good for parents to learn to say "I am mad right now" or "I am so frustrated" and then emulate positive coping mechanisms — and that this is better than being perfect pod-people parents who never show any strong feelings. So we need to work on that, too.

    Great question!

  7. My son started having tantrums seemingly on the DAY he turned a year old. His pediatrician told us they tend to peak around 18-20 months and then wane as the child becomes more verbal. This has certainly been true for my little guy, who still doesn't talk all that much at 23 mo but can at least ask for food, help, and a binky.

    Part of the trick for us is distinguishing between frustration and a true tantrum. It works much better to respond quickly to a screech of frustration, and urge him to use words instead – "Do you need help?" But an emotional meltdown, yes, does need to be ignored until he's calm enough to receive attention.

  8. My son just turned 3 and is just now starting to get a hang of the talking thing (we're a family of sloooow talkers) so we've been dealing with tantrums for…a long time. The best way I can deal with it is put him in time-out; I calmly explain that until he calms down, he needs to stay in time-out but as soon as he's ready to come to me. I usually sit on the couch which is just around the corner from our 'time-out' spot. Typically it only takes a minute or two for him to come to me and ask for a hug or to say he's sorry. And then we talk about why he went to time-out and what we can BOTH do to try and avoid it next time. It's been a long road but it's worked for us. Most days if he's having a fit about something (mostly something he doesn't want to do) all I have to do is mention some deep thinking in 'time-out' and he cooperates. Grudgingly.

  9. That is a good point about frustration vs. Tantrum. I think my son hasn't really hit the tantrum phase yet and mostly just has emotional meltdowns from frustration sometimes. I can see how these are two different things and should be handled in different ways.

  10. I work with small children and most of them are fairly non-verbal (they are between 13 months and 18 months, so they know words but don't converse). How me and my co worker handle tantrums are so long as the child is not in danger of harming themselves or any of the other children, we just play with the non-tantruming children. The child sees us and the other children having fun and tend to calm down pretty quickly. When they creep up to us after, we don't make an issue of the tantrum-a loving hug or gentle snuggle to help a still-sniffling child settle down and a return to the fold. Tantrums are stressful to both the parent (caregiver) and the child-if you keep your cool (yes, it's difficult!) the child can regain control quicker. This tactic can also work wonders when the whining phase sets in at around 2-3 years. Ignoring the whining and responding to the "nice voice" greatly reduces whining (barring exceptions like illness or injury).

  11. I read somewhere that some of the reasons children tantrum is because they're hungry or sick, and I would think that any physical discomfort (hot, cold, tired, etc.) could produce one as well. It seems to me that if that it is a physical problem it would make more sense to figure out what's wrong and causing the tantrum and treat it (if possible, obviously if the child is sick and it's not time for medicine, there isn't anything that can be done, but if the child is hungry that's fixable).

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