6 Things You Don’t Know About Tantrums
What research tells us about meltdowns, including the scientifically proven way to stop them
By Judy Dutton
My daughter threw her first tantrum on my birthday. We were out at a restaurant, trying to celebrate, reluctant to exclude our eighteen-month-old by hiring a babysitter. Bad mistake: As soon as dinner arrived, she wanted out of her highchair. Then she started wailing, so my husband whisked her out of the restaurant. I ate a few bites of my dinner, alone, before I gave up and doggy-bagged the rest. Happy birthday? Yeah, right.
Since then, my daughter’s outbursts have grown longer, stronger, and more varied in pitch and pacing. They’ve made me wonder: Is this normal? And, dear god, how can I make them stop? I was soon relieved to find that tantrums aren’t just the bane of parenthood, but a subject of serious scientific study. At the University of Minnesota, highly sensitive microphones were sewn inside onesies to record meltdowns at close range. At the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, researchers gave toddlers toys, then took them away to see how they’d react (in general, not good). Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a 118-question quiz called the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior to gauge the difference between a normal hissy fit and a potential sign of mental problems. All of this has heralded in a wealth of research that can give parents a fresh perspective.
Consider these six surprising facts to help you cope during your child’s next meltdown so you don’t lose it, too.
1. Tantrums follow a predictable pattern
They may look like pure chaos, but tantrums are actually more like a symphony, with predictable peaks and denouements. Phase one involves yelling and screaming; phase two throwing objects or oneself on the floor. While the flailing of phase two may seem like an escalation, it’s actually a sign the tantrum’s past its apex and headed downhill, giving way to phase three: crying and whining. Parents should wait until phase three before intervening to comfort their child. Only what should you do to soldier through phase one and two?
2. Ignore it and it will go away
Which means you should ignore the outburst. Turn your back if you can, and don’t get angry or emotional—from your child’s perspective, negative attention is better than none. We know this is easier said than done, but the less you acknowledge a hissy fit, the faster it will fade. In cases where parents kept quiet, their kids’ screams subsided in less than a minute on average.
3. Reasoning is futile
Ever notice how trying to talk to a ticked-off toddler just makes things worse? Here’s why: Kids in the midst of a meltdown are so mentally taxed, appeals to their sense of logic won’t sink in, and will only push their tirade to greater heights. So don’t bother explaining to Jimmy why he has to wear shoes outside. Don’t ask questions, either, which also overload their brain circuits as they scramble to formulate a response. Instead, give short, specific orders like “sit down,” “be quiet,” or “go to your room.” Avoid vague commands like “be good.” Only concrete commands will compute.
4. There’s more than one type of tantrum—and way to deal
There are actually three types of tantrums. “Attention tantrums” are a type where your child is playing quietly but erupts as soon as you’re on the phone. “Tangibles tantrums” erupt when your child desires something he can’t have, like a candy bar at the store. “Command avoidance tantrums” occur when your child resists changing what he’s doing, like taking a bath or going to bed. For the first two types of tantrums, ignoring them is best, since your attention is what they’re angling for. For “command avoidance” tantrums, you’ll need to take more forceful measures. Say, “I’m going to count to five. By five, you should be putting your toys away/dressing for bed.” Counting works well because no one can immediately jump into an activity they’re reluctant to do; this gives them time to adjust. If, by five, your child doesn’t comply, then put your hands on him and do it for him—toddlers hate being controlled in this manner and will try to avoid it in the future.