In a groundbreaking new study published in the journal Emotion, scientists studied high-quality audio recordings of over 100 toddlers having temper tantrums, and discovered that the emotional outbursts familiar to every parent actually have predictable rhythms and patterns that, when properly understood, can help parents, teachers, and caregivers tell the difference between a "normal" tantrum, and a sign of an emotional or behavioral disorder.
The scientists then analyzed the audio. They found that different tantrum sounds had very distinct audio signatures. When the sounds were laid down on a graph, the researchers found that different sounds emerged and faded in a definite pattern. Unsurprisingly, sounds like yelling and screaming usually came together.
"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."
But where one age-old theory of tantrums might suggest that meltdowns begin in anger (yells and screams) and end in sadness (cries and whimpers), Potegal found that the two emotions were more deeply intertwined.
"The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect," Potegal said. "In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous."
Green and Potegal found that sad sounds tended to occur throughout tantrums. Superimposed on them were sharp peaks of yelling and screaming: anger.
The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible, Potegal said, was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger, the scientists said, was to do nothing. Of course, that isn't easy for parents or caregivers to do.
Image: Toddler having a tantrum, via Shutterstock.