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Shots - Health Blog

What's Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams

Originally published on Thu December 8, 2011 7:46 am

Children's temper tantrums are widely seen as many things: the cause of profound helplessness among parents; a source of dread for airline passengers stuck next to a young family; a nightmare for teachers. But until recently, they had not been considered a legitimate subject for science.

Now research suggests that, beneath all the screams and kicking and shouting, lies a phenomenon that is entirely amenable to scientific dissection. Tantrums turn out to have a pattern and rhythm to them. Once understood, researchers say, this pattern can help parents, teachers and even hapless bystanders respond more effectively to temper tantrums — and 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.

The key to a new theory of tantrums lies in a detailed analysis of the sounds that toddlers make during tantrums. In a new paper published in the journal Emotion, scientists found that different toddler sounds – or "vocalizations" – emerge and fade in a definite rhythm in the course of a tantrum.

"We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind," said study co-author Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota, half in jest and half seriously.

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."

The wireless microphone fed into a recorder that ran for several hours. If the toddler had a meltdown during that period, the researchers obtained a high-quality audio recording. Over time, Green and Potegal said they collected more than a hundred tantrums in high-fidelity audio.

The scientists then analyzed the audio. They found that different tantrum sounds had very distinct audio signatures. When the sounds were laid down on a graph, the researchers found that different sounds emerged and faded in a definite pattern. Unsurprisingly, sounds like yelling and screaming usually came together.

"Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together," Potegal said. "Throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together. Combinations of crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort — and these also hang together."

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 emotions 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."

Green and Potegal found that sad sounds tended to occur throughout tantrums. Superimposed on them were sharp peaks of yelling and screaming: anger.

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.

That's what parents Noemi and David Doudna of Sunnyvale, Calif., found. Their daughter Katrina once had a meltdown at dinnertime because she wanted to sit at one corner of the dining table. Problem was, the table didn't have any corners – it was round. When David Doudna asked Katrina where she wanted to sit, the tantrum only intensified.

"You know, when children are at the peak of anger and they're screaming and they're kicking, probably asking questions might prolong that period of anger," said Green. "It's difficult for them to process information. And to respond to a question that the parent is asking them may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with."

In a video of the tantrum that Noemi Doudna posted on YouTube, Katrina's tantrum intensified to screaming, followed by the child throwing herself to the floor and pushing a chair against a wall.

"Tantrums tend to often have this flow where the buildup is often quite quick to a peak of anger," Green said.

Understanding that tantrums have a rhythm can not only help parents know when to intervene, but also give them a sense of control, Green said.

That's because, when looked at scientifically, tantrums are no different than thunderstorms or other natural phenomena. Studying them as scientific subjects rather than experiencing them like parents can cause the tantrums to stop feeling traumatic and even become interesting.

"When we're walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum, I comment on the child's technique," Potegal said. "[I] mutter to my family, 'Good data,' and they all laugh."

Noemi Doudna said she now looks back on Katrina's tantrums and sees the humor in them.

Katrina often demanded things that made no sense in the course of tantrums, Noemi Doudna said. She once said, "'I don't want my feet. Take my feet off. I don't want my feet. I don't want my feet!'"

When nothing calmed the child down, Noemi Doudna added, "I once teased her — which turned out to be a big mistake — I once said, 'Well, OK, let's go get some scissors and take care of your feet.'"

Her daughter's response, Noemi Doudna recalled, was a shriek: "Nooooo!!"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Today in "Your Health," temper tantrums. Parents dread them. If you have young children in your family, you may have witnessed one recently. So far, hard science hasn't had much to say about tantrums, but that's changing. New research has the potential to help adults cope with one of the most traumatic rites of parenthood, and to turn what is widely seen as a dreaded event into a cause for curiosity. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: If you're driving or doing something that requires your full attention, be warned. You're about to hear something very distracting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: That's Katrina Doudna of Sunnydale, California. She was 3 when she had that tantrum. She's 5 now. Katrina used to have lots of tantrums. Her mother, Noemi Doudna, says the triggers often made no sense.

NOEMI DOUDNA: When she was in the midst of a tantrum, she'd pick something that she knew was completely unreasonable. I don't want my feet! Take my feet off! I don't want my feet! I don't want my feet!

VEDANTAM: Noemi and her husband, David, tried everything. They tried to wait the tantrums out. They tried time-outs. Nothing worked. Noemi would sometimes even play along to show Katrina how unreasonable she was being.

NOEMI DOUDNA: I once teased her, which turned out to be a big mistake. But I once said, well, OK, let's go get some scissors and take care of your feet. No!

VEDANTAM: There was nothing wrong with Katrina. Small kids just have tantrums. Some have lots of them. Tantrums may be traumatic for parents, but they're mostly normal behavior. So science hasn't paid much attention to them, until now.

JAMES GREEN: My name's James Green.

VEDANTAM: James Green is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut. He and a colleague have developed a new theory of tantrums. Green's going to apply his theory to one of Katrina Doudna's tantrums. He's going to give us a play-by-play analysis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: But first, I want him to tell you how he collected his data.

GREEN: We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear, that has a high-quality, wireless microphone sewn into it. Parents put this onesie on the child, and press a go button on the equipment.

VEDANTAM: And then everyone waits to see if the toddler has a meltdown. Over time, the researchers collected more than 100 screaming, crying and shouting performances. When they analyzed the audio files, the scientists discovered something. Here's Green's colleague, Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL POTEGAL: We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind, he said modestly.

VEDANTAM: You heard that right. A scientific theory of tantrums. By breaking down the audio recordings, Potegal and Green found that tantrums follow rules. Screams and yells usually come together. Throwing things, and pulling and pushing, happen together. Crying, whining, and falling down on the floor go together.

Now, the old theory of tantrums is they have two stages. The child gets angry; that's the shouting and kicking and screaming. And she ends in tears. So tantrums start angry, and end sad.

POTEGAL: The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect. In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.

VEDANTAM: Green and Potegal found that different tantrum sounds have distinct audio signatures. When you plot the sounds on a graph, you see how different sounds emerge and fade during a tantrum. Sad sounds, like whimpering and crying, occur throughout the tantrum. But superimposed on them, you see sharp peaks - yelling and screaming. That's the anger.

The trick, Potegal says, is to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once you do that, what's left is the sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger - do nothing. Don't shout, don't hit, don't try to comfort the child. But when a child's screaming, it's hard to do nothing.

POTEGAL: When I'm advising people about anger, I say there's an anger trap.

VEDANTAM: Even asking questions can prolong the anger, and prolong the tantrum. I asked Green to apply the new theory to one of Katrina Doudna's tantrums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: Noemi Doudna videotaped this tantrum. When the video starts, Katrina is being carried by her dad, David. It's dinnertime. Katrina wants to sit at the head of the dining table. Problem is, there's no head at this dining table. The table's round.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOTAPE)

KATRINA DOUDNA: I don't want to sit at it! No!

VEDANTAM: Katrina's kicking and screaming. She's angry. You can see David falling into the anger trap. He asks a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID DOUDNA: Which corner do you want to sit at?

KATRINA DOUDNA: No!

VEDANTAM: As a father, Green's fallen into the same trap himself. As a researcher, he knows it's a mistake.

GREEN: When children are at their peak of anger, and they're screaming and they're kicking, probably asking questions might prolong that period of anger.

VEDANTAM: He thinks it's because the child is already overwhelmed.

GREEN: It's difficult for them to process information. And to respond to a question that the parent's asking may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with.

VEDANTAM: It's better, Green says, to keep things simple. Issue short commands like, sit down; go to your room. I asked Green how the new theory might predict where Katrina's tantrum would go.

GREEN: If it follows the pattern that we think is sort of classic, we would expect it to build up to word lists; very high-pitched, very intense screaming like, you know, you hear in a horror movie.

VEDANTAM: OK. Ready?

DAVID DOUDNA: Do you know what? It doesn't have a corner, 'cause it's round. It's a circle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: Notice how fast we've gone from crying to screaming? Remember how Green and Potegal said tantrums tend to have sad sounds superimposed by surges of anger? Those peaks of anger usually come early in a tantrum.

GREEN: Tantrums tend to often have this flow, where the buildup is quite quick to a peak of anger.

VEDANTAM: In the video, David Doudna ignores the screaming. He does exactly what Potegal and Green would have advised. Katrina can't decide which chair to sit at, so he makes the decision.

DAVID DOUDNA: I'm going to pick you - this chair for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

KATRINA DOUDNA: No! No! No!

VEDANTAM: Now initially, it looks like David has made the wrong call. Katrina doesn't like the chair. She hops off. She's on the ground now. She grabs a loose chair, and she slams it against a wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR SLAMMING)

VEDANTAM: It's looks like the tantrum is escalating. But in fact, what the new theory suggests is exactly the opposite.

GREEN: Once she's thrown herself on the floor and thrown something - or in this case, knocked the chair against a wall - we're probably on the down slope of this tantrum. She's spent a lot of energy - screaming, yelling, and now doing these physical behaviors.

VEDANTAM: The scream was a peak. No one can stay that angry for long; it's exhausting. I asked Green what sounds he expected next from Katrina.

GREEN: Probably something in the vocal domain like crying or whining. There's been so much energy expended. The child knows that they've been out of control. That leads to a sense that they'd like some comfort from the parents.

VEDANTAM: Listen to Katrina, and pay close attention to how the register of her voice changes.

KATRINA DOUDNA: No. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIMPERING)

VEDANTAM: This tantrum, from scream to whimper, took only a minute. But in a paper they published in the journal Emotion, Green and Potegal argue that no matter how long tantrums last or how often they occur, they follow the same pattern. When Potegal now sees a child having a meltdown at a grocery store, he says he watches to see how well the tantrum fits the pattern he's identified.

POTEGAL: When we're walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum, I comment on the child's technique. Mutter to my family, good data, and they all laugh.

VEDANTAM: What this means is that if you start to observe tantrums like scientists do, instead of experiencing them like parents do, they stop being traumatic. They may even become interesting. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.