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Anatomy of a Tantrum: What Every Parent Needs to Know

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?

Read more: Babies, Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Relationships, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

39 comments

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11:49AM PST on Jan 11, 2012

Communication is key. My little sister would throw her tantrums and my mom would yell and threaten. My sister and I know first hand that it doesn't work so we'd threaten her to leave her alone and then we would take care of the problem. We'd let my sister know that mom was gone and that in order to be helped, she needs to talk to us, even if she would pause every second with her tears and gasping. We'd tell her to relax a little, cry if she wants to and to come to us when she's ready to talk. Sure enough, she would and she'd tell us what's bothering her. It was always over something that could easily be fixed or something we could compromise with. There is no yelling, threatening or kicking involved, it doesn't help one bit.

12:04PM PST on Dec 12, 2011

I am sure my comments are going to offend a few. Only I feel 'proof is in the pudding' to quote an old fashioned saying. I am often complemented, as my children are, on their behaviour and courtesy to others.
Well a short sharp smack on the hand or leg right at the start of the tantrum is all that was needed to stop me and in turn my children's tantrums. My Mom said we were well behaved in public, as are and were my children and my brothers and sisters children, if we weren't we got the 'look' and stopped immediately as we definitely knew what we had coming to use.

I find it so sad these days that so many children have no respect for themselves let alone others.

9:14AM PST on Dec 12, 2011

I'd rather to deal with a kid's tantrum than dealing with an adult's.

I work in a retailer store and moms bring their kids along , sometimes those are babies as little as a week (poor guys), we (at the store) listen at loud music, loud laughter, stress. banging and dropping and all the sweet stuff that kids just don't find amusing, especially "if" they have to get up early without eating anything, just to bet the crowd and get the "best" deals of the day........... oh boy! I'll be up set myself.

When my son was little, I used to talk to him and used to tell him this : let's do this for me and later on we go to the movies or to eat wherever you'd like. I used to bring him juice,his bottle, cookies, fruit etc. and most of the times, "it was in and out deal"

Parents need to communicate , listen and to avoid- thanks

8:15AM PST on Dec 12, 2011

I would reccomend the book "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" to anyone dealing with tantrums or other toddler issues. This book gives real advice on how to cope with tantrums and really reflects these findings.

9:46AM PST on Dec 11, 2011

Tantrums can be stopped..it's just knowing your child and taking the time to stop the outburst and understansding WHY ...

11:52PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

I never had the luxury of throwing tantrums when I was a kid. Before we wnt anywhere, we were told what our behavior was going to be and if we did otherwise we were told what the outcome would be. It just never was in our favor. But, back then parents did the parenting, there was no time-out, no taking anything from you, etc. Times have changed.

10:00PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

thanks

8:19PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

sounds like exactly what i needed when i was a kid, though i rarely got it

5:30PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

thanks

3:35PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

I threw one tantrum in my whole life.I was removed from the situation,had my ass spanked,and once I stopped crying,we went back to finish without another word ever said about it.I never pulled that nonsense again.

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