Anatomy of a Tantrum

Anatomy of a TantrumI think most of us know how a tantrum plays out…

Child wants something, it’s not appropriate, we distract or say “not now”, child becomes increasingly more upset, our heart rate starts to quicken because we sense the imminent storm…then it happens.

Our sweet child suddenly transforms into a screaming, crying, flailing mess. We’re left bewildered, wondering what we did to provoke such an emotional meltdown.

Then, we remember, oh yeah, she’s two. Tantrums are pretty much par for the course.

Aside from weathering these storms and knowing that fatigue, hunger, over stimulation, and frustration are common tantrum triggers (no matter what the age), is there anything else we should know about tantrums? Yesterday, on the NPR Health Blog, researchers revealed what they found after studying (listening to) over 100 tantrums. Yes, that’s right, they had these little tykes in a “bugged” onesie and as soon as a tantrum erupted, researchers were able to listen in and “deconstruct” these tantrums. What they found was that tantrums definitely have a common rhythm and flow no matter what started the tantrum. They also found that mixed with anger and frustration…was sadness. What really got me was watching that video of the little girl having a meltdown. It actually brought me to tears. Because, as an objective bystander, I could see and hear the sadness in her.

I know, as parents, it’s hard to stay objective when it’s our own child.

Tantrums always seem to happen at the most inopportune times….such as school parking lots, grocery stores…you name it. We just want it to be O.V.E.R. and will do just about anything to get it to stop. And usually? Empathy and patience are nowhere to be found.

However, next time your tot dissolves into one, take a step back and just watch.

Do nothing.

That’s right…nothing. Get earplugs if you need to. Knowing that your child’s tantrum will evolve on its own without any intervention and will actually evolve much more quickly without us trying to stop it, may help.

Apparently, the sooner your child gets over the angry part of her tantrum, the sooner she’ll reach out for comfort because all that’s left is the sadness. That is the time when you can re-engage and offer comfort and empathy to your child. According to the researchers, even asking your child questions (such as what do you want?) can prolong the tantrum when she’s in the midst of the terrible storm.

Wait. Watch.

Then, muster up all the empathy you can (even if this particular storm frayed your very last nerve) and comfort your child.

After all, most childhood tantrums are not a direct affront to you. They’re your child’s way of dealing with overwhelming emotions…and yes, it all gets better with time.

Dr. Melissa Arca is a pediatrician, mom of two, writer, blogger, and child advocate. She is author of the award winning blog, Confessions of a Dr. Mom and writes a weekly parenting/children’s health column for her local paper, The Sacramento Bee. In her free time you can find her at the beach with her husband and two kids (Ages 5 and 7), coffee in hand.