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The anatomy of a temper tantrum


How often have you observed a child having a temper tantrum and wondered, 'Why don't the parents do anything about it?' And if you have worked closely with children, then I am sure you have also wondered, 'What can I do to stop it?' While these episodes are strong expressions of frustration, sadness and need for attention, they were not studied systematically in order to understand if there is a pattern behind them. Until recently, that is. 

new article in the journal Emotion studies the voice patterns recorded when children are having a temper tantrum and decodes the relationship between anger and sadness, the two key emotions during a tantrum. The researchers find that the anger and sadness patterns were present throughout the period of the tantrum. This finding is in contrast to the belief that during a tantrum anger comes first and sorrow comes last.

Does the presence of two powerful emotions throughout the tantrum make it harder to understand and handle? Not really, say the researchers, rather it gives us a tool to tackle these episodes. The goal should be to get the children past the peak of anger such that they can be comforted when they are sad. And how do we get screaming kids past their peak of anger? Simply by doing nothing! 

This counters a lot of parenting wisdom that states that a tantrum means that the child is upset and therefore must be given attention and soothed. But if you look at the suggestion made by the researchers, it makes sense. Tantrums often appear in the so-called terrible twos, a developmental stage where toddlers have more complex emotions and situational experiences than babies but not enough words to express them. This frustration, often combined with tiredness or hunger, manifests itself into a tantrum.

It may sound easy to do nothing, but when your child is throwing a fit, it is extremely challenging to stay cool as a cucumber -- something I know first hand.

Perhaps, the next set of studies should focus on what emotions are in play in the parents when their child is throwing a tantrum? This would complete the picture and give us a better understanding of how the child's behavior dictates ours. 

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