Temper Tantrums: There’s Method to the Madness

Clues taken from the sounds and rhythms of a toddler temper tantrum can help parents overcome the fit.


Getting through temper tantrums are a rite of passage for many parents of young children. The long-lasting screams, snarls and pants seem to come in random spurts, and parents are left dodging an emotional minefield.

But new research suggests that there may be a method in the madness.  

A study published in the journal Emotion found that tantrums have specific sounds and rhythms that can suggest distinguishable emotions.  

Researchers sewed microphones into onesies and gave them to parents of 13 two-to three-year olds. The microphones were connected to a recorder that picked up the children's meltdowns. The researchers then analyzed the sounds and graphed the patterns of the tantrums.

Screaming signaled a higher intensity of anger, while the crying, fussing and whining that occurred later suggested that the toddler was  more likely feeling sad.  But these differences can be hard to distinguish, since many times during an outburst  these emotions are intertwined, said James Green, co-author of the study and head of the department of psychology at the University of Connecticut.

The goal for parents is to have the children push through the anger stage as quickly as possible, said Green.

The potential feelings of restlessness, embarrassment and guilt can make some parents feel as if they'll never make it through. But Green tells parents to hold on.

During the anger stage, the child typically does not want to be talked to. Any communication with the child can set him or her off.  So, hard as it may be, many experts recommend ignoring the child as the fastest way to get past the tantrum. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, adults should not argue or engage with the child until the child calms down.

"If parents can avoid getting caught up in the anger, better things are likely to happen," said Green. " Of course, if you are in a theater, you may simply have to 'take control' in the sense of physically removing the child."

The sadness stage that follows allows children to reach out and to accept comfort from their parents, said Green.

While this study is small, the researchers said that if these tantrum sounds can be more accurately decoded, then parents can better address their child's tantrum. Distinguishing between the types of tantrums can also help clinicians decide whether a child could have an underlying emotional disorder.

Green said he and his colleagues would now look at how these vocalizations come together with physical signs of tantrums, such as  kicking and flailing on  the floor.  Also, he said they'd like to see how the relationship between the parent and child can influence the type of tantrums that occur.

The researchers would like to see "what is likely to happen next if a child screams and hits and the parent yells, versus the child screams and hits and the parent backs away," said Green.