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.