New Research On Temper Tantrums: Is There A New Take-Home Message?

Having just read the recent temper tantrum study published in the journal Emotion, I’ve been reflecting on what it means for parents. Frankly, I’m a bit baffled, because the take-home message we’ve been hearing as a result of this research – ignore a tantrum until a toddler is no longer angry – is not really any different than the conventional wisdom we had before the study came out. So I’m sharing my thoughts on what the study itself tells us, what it doesn’t tell us, and how we might be able to squeeze a new take-home message out of it.

What did we learn?: This study used a cool technology – sewing a mic into a “research” onesie  - to record 2- and 3-year-old temper tantrums as they occurred naturally in the home. The idea was to use sophisticated methods to analyze the toddlers’ recorded vocalizations to understand which emotions get expressed through the course of the tantrum. Now before you say “duh,” keep in mind that the researchers were challenging a theory – a widely-held theory – that tantrums start with anger, and once the anger goes away, then toddlers express sadness. Their results suggested that this model is wrong – toddlers express a mixture of sadness (whining and crying) and anger (screaming and yelling) throughout the tantrum. This is new information, but in and of itself, not a new take-home message (but please read on).

What didn’t we find out?: Well, lots of things – not because the study wasn’t good (in fact, it was terrific) – but because any given scientific study is typically designed to answer one key question (in research, you need to find out the answer to a question before you move on to the next question). So… we didn’t find out what makes a tantrum “normal” versus “problematic,” in part because the researchers selected toddlers who were reported by their parents to have (relatively speaking) a fair number of tantrums per week (between 3 and 6) so that they could generate enough vocalization data for analyses. We didn’t find out how the vocalizations correspond to behavior (e.g., kicking, hitting) – this is something the researchers suggest they will pursue in future studies. And, most importantly, the study did not evaluate what parents did in response to the tantrums and how that affected toddler behavior.

So is there a new take-home message?: Why then is it important for parents to know that sadness happens earlier in the tantrum if you will not act on it until after the anger burns off? What I suggest is that parents start getting attuned to the signals of sadness (whining and crying) as they emerge early in the tantrum – and differentiate them from the signals of anger  (screaming and yelling). See if you can observe signs of sadness even before the big time anger kicks in (maybe you can’t, but why not find out!). And if you can see it early, try some soothing talk (a hug might work well too!) as you redirect your toddler to another topic (anything!) that might bring a smile to your child’s face (but don’t give in on the source of the tantrum!). See if it prevents the anger from kicking in. Think about this as promoting the early stages of healthy self-control – a critically important skill as evidenced by one of the studies that I recently flagged as being amongst the 6 most important studies of 2011 – as you guide your child through frustration and help them handle the inevitable reality that you can’t always get what you want.

Keep in mind that this is simply an idea that you can try at home that applies the new information gathered by the research. And if it doesn’t work for you, please send me a comment to that effect (a little bit of our own survey research) when you revert back to ignoring your toddler’s next tantrum.

Image: Mom With Crying Baby Via Shuttershock

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  1. by Cait

    On December 16, 2011 at 10:10 am

    I just have to say, as a parent and as a former daycare worker, that I’m surprised they are calling this a “new” study. Any daycare worker worth his or her salt knows that children express many emotions during a tantrum. I’ve seen kids laugh in frustration while they are trying to convay their emotion and frustration. If you listen to a child’s emotions and react accordingly, sympathetic to sadness, understanding to anger, and try to use those rare moments when the child is so frustrated they are laughing by making a joke or turning the conversation around it’s easier to take the edge off of a tantrum….

  2. by Cait

    On December 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

    That being said, the study didn’t go in to the most important part of WHY children have tantrums. Yes they are frustrated and upset over something, but how an adult continuously reacts to these tantrums is the most important part! If you’re constantly giving in you’re in big trouble. But I’ve also never agreed with ignoring them either. I’ve found that parents constantly underestimate their children’s intelligence. Throughout my years as a teacher I have found that recognizing the signs of a tantrum build up and taking a calm moment can often stop them in their tracks. Have an honest and “grown up” conversation with your child. Even if the tantrum is in full swing, remaining calm, understanding their anger, and validating their sadness and frustration, while explaining why what they want just can’t happen is a great way to build rapport with a child. Demeaning them and making them feel bad about their tantrums will just bring up hard feelings in the future.

  3. by Mom

    On December 16, 2011 at 10:27 am

    When my 15-mo-old starts throwing a tantrum, my first step is to stop engaging with him (ex: quit playing the game). If he continues, I look away from him. If he still continues, I leave him in his room (safe environment with baby gate) until he settles down. If it continues for more than a minute, I check in and in a friendly tone say “are you ready to play?” or “can you tell me what you want now?” and he almost always responds well. Now, he knows what reaction his behavior elicits from me, so oftentimes as soon as we get to the looking-away stage, he calms down and tries again to communicate. So, bottom line? After trying to prompt him to act appropriately, we ignore his tantrums, but its not that cut and dry. Yes, we give him about two “second chances” to communicate and collect himself, but we NEVER give in to his tantrum demands. :)

  4. by First-Time Mom

    On December 16, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Personally….I’ve never seen any toddler laugh while throwing a tantrum. Who knows. But I have a 2yr old daughter and she throws them quite often….it always seems to stem right when I pick her up from daycare and her 1st question to me is “can i have a sucker mama”? and My response is after dinner. That’s when it starts to go down hill…she crys and yells for a little bit and I start walking towards the door, eventually she’ll follow and when we get home, she’s fine. But….after dinner she wants a sucker or chewing gum and sometimes i try to redirect that to maybe some applesauce or grapes, or even yougurt…most of the time she’ll take my advances and eat the more healthier stuff. But then…30 minutes later she’ll get EXTREMELY upset if she can’t get her shoes off, or if she can’t find something in her room that she’s looking for, or even if she drops something….the smallest things set her off!! I worry that she stresses too much and gets mad to easy over small things and she is only 2!! I try and just hold her or say “let mama help you” if that doesnt work i’ll say things like dora doesn’t be mean and yell at her mommy….and she may calm down (she loves dora). but it just upsets me that she can be set off so easlily. even grocery shopping….everytime something sparks her maddness and she will go wild!! Maybe it’s the age “terrible twos”???

  5. by Gayla

    On December 16, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Why do we need to be extremists? I think there’s an “in between” on this issue…you don’t need to pick them up every time they are crying but you also shouldn’t ignore them when their crying gets to a certain level. I have 18 month old triplets and at 6 months of age we began sleep training them. If they were crying for a certain amount of time we would console them in their cribs without picking them up so they didn’t associate crying with being picked up. We also learned the different cries and if it was a hungry/hurting cry or an “I just want your attention” cry. All three of ours LOVE their beds and look forward to bed time now. Everyone compliments us on how happy our three are and I truly believe part of the reason is because they’re well rested children that have been sleeping 7-7 since 6 months! There’s such thing as a happy medium with sleep training!

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