You can usually tell when it’s coming. Your little one’s normally sweet cherubic face begins to turn a scarlet red. The eyes and mouth twist into something unrecognizable. Squirming ramps up, tears start to flow, whining reaches a fever pitch and then BOOM- your child is spinning off into of a doozy of a tantrum.
A little voice in your head says “step away from the child.” That’s probably not a bad idea.
So, what does it all mean?
According to a new study published in the journal Emotion, it means your child is experiencing a complex mixture of simultaneous emotions including sadness and anger. I know from personal experience, it’s sometimes hard to see the sadness when the anger has the upper hand.
It’s an interesting study. Very young children aren’t able to express in words what’s bugging them. They can’t argue reasonably, defend their position, or explain why they want what they want. They are at the mercy of whoever is in charge. As you might expect, that can lead to increased levels of frustration. Get frustrated enough, and something’s going to give. But what exactly are they trying to express?
While tantrums generally involve shouting, kicking, screaming, crying and whining, the new study looked at the noises a child makes when going through a temper attack.
Researchers discovered that the sounds children make during a tantrum are not random. But have a specific pattern and rhythm.
The first challenge was to collect tantrum sounds, says co-author James A. Green of the University of Connecticut.
"We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear that has a high-quality wireless microphone sewn into it," Green said. "Parents put this onesie on the child and press a go button."
Researchers listened to and recorded more than 100 high-fidelity audio recordings and discovered certain patterns of anger and sadness.
"Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together," study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota told National Public Radio. "Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort -- these also hang together." And while earlier thinking suggested that a child progressed from initial sadness to anger during a tantrum, the researchers found that these two emotions actually occur simultaneously throughout the outburst.
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 motions 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."
Once understood, researchers say, this pattern can help parents, teachers and caregivers respond more effectively to temper tantrums. It can also help clinicians tell the difference between ordinary tantrums, which are a normal part of a child's development, and those that may be warning signals of an underlying disorder.
So what is the best way to handle a tantrum?
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.
"When I'm advising people about anger, I say, 'There's an anger trap,"' Potegal said.
Even asking questions can prolong the anger and the tantrum.
Many experts recommend ignoring the child when they are in tantrum meltdown mode.
Preschoolers.about.com offers these suggestions for handling a child in the throes of a tantrum meltdown.
- If you can, try walking away, making sure that your child is safe first. Stay nearby, but make sure it’s clear by your actions that her display has no effect on you. Don’t make eye contact and don’t talk to her. When she sees that she’s not getting a reaction, she’ll eventually stop.
- Diffuse it: If you have trouble not re-acting, there are some other techniques you can try. Soothe your child by rubbing her back and talk to her in low, quiet tones. Some parents find repeating the same phrase over and over again like, “You’re OK,” or “It’s alright”or singing a quiet song or nursery rhyme seems to work. You can also try injecting a little humor into the situation by telling a silly joke or making a funny face.
What you shouldn't do: yell back at your child or try to reason with him. While your child in the middle of an emotional outburst, there is no way to get through to him. You just have to wait until it is over.
If the tantrum is in a public place, pick her up and bring her to a more private location like your car or a public bathroom. If you can’t get the tantrum under control, put her into her car seat and go home. Unfortunately, there are some instances where you just can’t leave, such as an airplane or a train. Just do your best and grin and bear it. Others might be annoyed but your child is your concern, not anyone else.
If you child starts to bite, kick, hit or show some other aggressive behaviors, you must take action immediately. Remove the child from the situation until she can calm down.
When the tantrum is over, don’t dwell on what happened as upset or as angry as you may be. Going over what happened again and again will most likely upset your child and could cause them to begin to tantrum again. Instead, give her a hug and a kiss and move on. If you feel like you need to talk about it, wait a few hours when you are both calm.
One of the most important things to remember is that children are not simply little adults. They cannot respond on the same level as an adult and the younger they are, the less they know how to handle frustrating situations. As they grow and test the boundaries, they will learn about life by what you teach them and how you teach them.