Ah, the temper tantrum. You know, that almost rite-of-passage moment when a seemingly perfect child suddenly turns into a screaming, snarling, and sobbing lunatic. But is there a method to this toddler madness?
Maybe. Researchers who listened to the sounds of more than 100 temper tantrums now think that, like thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other forces of nature, tantrums have distinct patterns for how they play out. According to the study, temper tantrums have specific sounds and rhythms that express either bouts of anger or sadness. While there still might not be a "cure" for tantrums, researchers think that learning to recognize these patterns may help parents the next time they need to deal with one.
To find out what makes tantrums tick, researchers sewed microphones into onesies and gave them to parents of 13 2- to 3-year olds, reports NPR. Children wore the onesies throughout the day, with microphones recording all sounds, including any meltdowns. Researchers then had the very unpleasant task of listening to tantrums as they tracked sounds and graphed patterns and similarities.
Their findings? "Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together," says study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota (via NPR). "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."
When it comes to matching these behaviors with emotions, screaming and yelling seems to signal a higher intensity of anger, while crying, fussing, and whining may mean the child is feeling sad. But often these emotions are intertwined, says researchers.
So how to get your tot through his next tantrum? "The goal for parents is to have the child push through the anger stage as quickly as possible," says James Green, another co-author of the study and head of the department of psychology at the University of Connecticut.
During the anger stage of a tantrum, a toddler typically does not want to be talked to by anyone—and any communication from you may set him or her off. (If you have ever tried to humor your child during a tantrum, you may already know how this often only incites new rage.) As hard as it may be, the good old-fashioned advice of ignoring a child as the fastest way to get past the tantrum may just be the best answer.
"If parents can avoid getting caught up in the anger, better things are likely to happen," says Green. " Of course, if you are in a theater, you may simply have to 'take control' in the sense of physically removing the child."
Once the anger has burned itself out, the sadness that is "leftover" will likely have the child reaching out for comfort from a parent, says researchers. And once the sadness passes, calm is restored—at least until the next tantrum.