Anatomy of a Tantrum: What Every Parent Needs to Know
Any and every parent, hell…anyone, that has been on a transcontinental flight, knows that a child possesses the unique ability to stop time, as well as the progression of man, with a simple, atomic tantrum. While the odds are that everyone who is reading this has in fact thrown a tantrum themselves at some point in their lives, it doesn’t change or negate the seismic impact of a strategically placed face to the floor, fist-pumping, 120-decibel screaming paroxysm a child is capable of unleashing. Some parents and caregivers are better at dealing with such outbursts than others. Some practice a form of acceptance and measured compassion, while quietly hoping for the fit to pass. Others just simply react, elevating the level of tension with screams and shrieks of their own, only to be met with shame and regret minutes later. But regardless of how a child’s tantrum is dealt with, there exists another, more detached, analytical option to explore.
According to new research, as reported by NPR, the classic childhood tantrum, while being highly disruptive, also holds true to a distinct and predictable pattern, as well as rhythm. 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. “We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind,” said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota, half in jest and half seriously. What they found was this; screaming and yelling and kicking usually go together, as well as throwing, pulling, and pushing go together, and then crying, whining, and seeking comfort go together as well (I know, tell me something I didn’t know). Essentially what this means is that tantrums consist of an intertwining of two dominant emotions – sadness and anger. If you could get your child past the peaks of anger relatively quickly, then you have a sad child needing comfort, not conflict. And the trick to getting beyond this anger is…simply doing nothing. As long as the child is not a danger to himself or herself or anyone else, let them move through the emotion and meet them on the other side, which is the ghetto of sadness. There, and only there, your help, love, and compassion will be met with an appropriate response.
The takeaway from all of this is that anger, in the framework of a tantrum, should not be met with anger, nor should it be met with sarcasm, threats, or even helpful suggestions. The torrent of anger should be treated like a storm that needs to pass before clean up and reparations could be made. I am speaking from experience, as I have tried just about everything and have found that a measured approach, providing ample room for your child to wear himself/herself down is the best approach. Imagine yourself to be an anthropologist (if it helps) and move beyond your knee-jerk reactions and frustrations. The results might vary, but they will no doubt be illuminating.
Do you have a tried and true method for dealing with tantrums? Does it work with adults as well as children? Do you believe this theory holds water, or is there a better way to deal with tantrums and violent outbursts?