Of Toddlers and Tyrants: The Science Behind a Tantrum

5 years ago
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“PUT IT IN THE GARBAGE!” “PUT IT IN THE GARBAGE!” “PUT IT IN THE GARBAGE!” {Yell at the highest volume possible, repeat for four straight minutes, include tears, wails, and kicking, and insert strange guttural vocalizations at random intervals}.

And you have my son’s tantrum from the other morning.

What trauma, what act of maternal negligence, what lapse of parental judgment brought on such an emotional display by my three-year-old?

It was truly terrible. He wanted Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast. I poured the cereal into the bowl. Because the box was nearly empty, only 13 miniature-toasts landed in the bowl. I opened a fresh new box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and poured in more “toast” to fill the bowl to his usual desired level.

Apparently, it is a law of the toddler universe that cereals from multiple boxes CANNOT BE MIXED.

“DON’T MIX IT!! PUT IT IN THE GARBAGE!!” {Return to the beginning of the post to see where this went…}

{In his defense, this thoughtless act by his mother followed her incredibly unreasonable request that he take off the mud-encrusted pants he had dressed himself in (that had been taken from the dirty laundry basket), and wear clean pants instead. Could there be a worse start to a three-year-old’s day?}


Nothing looks more chaotic and out of control than a three-year-old in the midst of a full-out tantrum. Is there any behavior more primal and unstructured than the boneless, frenzied fits our children seem to throw by instinct?

Well, this left-brain, analytical mom is thrilled to learn that there is in fact a science, a pattern, and a structure behind tantrums! Even more exciting is that if we learn to recognize this tantrum pattern, we can respond more effectively when our children throw them. I love science!

Credit: mahalie.

I first heard this story about the science of tantrums by Shankar Vedantam on NPR over a year ago, but this incident with my son led to me find the transcript online. According to researchers Michael Potegal and James A. Green, there is a pattern to tantrums. They begin with anger + sadness (screaming, yelling, kicking, throwing things, pushing), the anger peaks and then subsides, and what’s left at the end is sadness + comfort-seeking (crying, whining, falling to the floor). I highly recommend you click on the article above; there is a video clip showing this pattern, and explaining the distinctly different vocalizations at each stage of the tantrum.

Even more exciting for this history-teacher mom is that this pattern instantly reminded me of the theory of The Anatomy of Revolution, proposed by historian Crane Brinton as a way to analyze patterns of revolutionary activity in history (e.g., in the French Revolution). Brinton compared revolutions {and I think we can add tantrums} to a fever. In all of these cases, there is a distinct pattern -- symptoms, a crisis/moderate phase, a radical/Terror/delirium phase, and a relapse. Just as the body cannot maintain feverish temperatures for long before the fever breaks, a society cannot maintain the fever pitch of revolution for long, as more moderate groups will eventually regain power.

When we are in the midst of our child's tantrum, toddlers may seem to outlast intense fevers or even revolutionary zealots in their ability to sustain terror. But like nasty colds and dictatorial regimes, the fit will eventually subside in intensity and will come to an end.

“The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible … [is] to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child [is] past being angry, what [is] left is sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort,” Vedantam writes.

And how do parents help get their children past the peak of anger? How do you get the tantrum to end? Here’s another great part: YOU DO NOTHING!

Yep, that’s what the researchers said.

If we intervene before the anger has peaked, we are likely to overwhelm our children, as they are not in a state in which they can process information. When I tried telling my son that the cereal was the same no matter what box it came from, he screamed. When I asked him if he wanted something else, he yelled even louder. When anger is still at its peak, my children don’t even want comforting. “Do you need a hug?” I asked. “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!”

According to the article, “Studying [tantrum-throwing children] as scientific subjects rather than experiencing them like parents can cause the tantrums to stop feeling traumatic and even become interesting.” That’s mindful parenting! Step back, observe the tantrum, and wait for the signals of sadness that indicate your child is ready for comforting. Intervening before the anger peaks likely only intensifies everyone’s emotional state.

So I let my son throw his tantrum the other morning for what felt like an eternity. {But it was only about 4 minutes. Much better than the thirteen-month Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.} I got my daughter’s breakfast ready, and sat down to eat mine. Eventually, my son’s yelling and shrieking subsided, and he came over to me, sobbing, and climbed up on my lap. I kissed him, he stopped crying, and he proceeded to eat the offending, comes-from-two-different-boxes cereal.

Raging Fever, Reign of Terror, and Roaring Tantrum -- there is a pattern to the madness! I love it when science and history combine to teach me how to make parenting easier. Or at least make me feel like I understand it.

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