Researchers Explore the Science of Temper Tantrums

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.

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  1. by Kimberly

    On December 7, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Okay really that was the whole article? What is the difference between the normal tantrums and the ones with behavioral issues? How do you prevent them? How do you stop them? Could have had a bit more information in this article.

  2. by tahoegrandma

    On December 7, 2011 at 9:48 am

    HA! My husband was telling me about this “study” he had heard on the radio about tantrums. I was like…..oh, this is something NEW? I then invited him to come to my work on any given day (preschool) and see what he thought (he declined…LOL). A tantrum happens several times an hour and they are usually quite similar…NOT a behavioral problem but an attempt to be heard by SOMEONE….another child, a caregiver, parent, etc.

  3. by Meg

    On December 7, 2011 at 11:19 am

    I agree Kimberly, I was waiting for the punchline here. Like, how do you tell the difference between a “normal” and “abnormal” tantrum? Where is there a link to the article cited? The article just kind of ends….

  4. by Isabel

    On December 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    LAME LAME….what kind of info is that? I’m still with no answers. :(

  5. by Madhu

    On December 7, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Same here..was disappointed to see that the article abruptly ended with no new information.

  6. by Nicolas Wittenmyer

    On December 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    Very detailed article can i translate into German for our blogs readers? If thats OK what type of acknowledgement do you require?