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The Scientific Way to Respond to a Temper Tantrum

temper tantrum, childhood development

According to the research, we gotta just let him scream.

I’ll spare parent-readers the description of a temper tantrum. Even if you’ve not yet experienced one, you will. Ohhhhh boy, you will.

Tantrums are the worst, not only because they involve what was recently found to be the most annoying sound in the world, but because everyone involved is just so powerless. The awfulness of tantrums multiplies ten-fold if it happens to be launched somewhere in public. How the snap of onlookers’ heads — the furrowed brow of fellow grocery store shoppers — doesn’t make an unpleasant (and normal!) situation so, so miserable.

Tantrums are something most parents (and kids) just try to get through. New research into tantrums might make them a little easier to endure (or at least a more clinical way of looking at your child during her next whopper).

A new paper in the most recent issue of the journal, Emotion, explains that there’s a distinct pattern to temper tantrums, and also that two distinct emotions are all tangled up during a meltdown: anger and sadness.

To get to the bottom of a fist-pounder, researchers outfitted toddlers in a specially designed onesie — one with a microphone and recorder built in. Later, they analyzed these recordings, making note of verbalizations, physical gestures and emotions.  Two distinct tantrum patterns emerged, according to study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota [via NPR.org]:

“Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together,” Potegal said. “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.”

While tantrums had often been thought of as starting in anger and ending in sadness, researchers found that both of these emotions were present throughout. And the trick to getting a tantrum to end is to get past the peaks of anger. Easier said than done, of course, but what researchers also found was that doing nothing got past the anger most quickly.

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.

Well, well, well, judgmental fellow flier in the seat in front of me. I guess turning around and bitching about a kid having a meltdown isn’t going to help matters like you think it will. Neither will attempting to distract the kid, offering food or toys or hugs, or yelling back. Just time, tolerance and a big hug when the only thing left is tears.

This is kind of game-changing information, isn’t it?

Coda: don’t you sort of feel sorry for the researchers who got stuck listening to all those recorded meltdowns?


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