Growth Curve

The inexact science of raising kids

Laura Sanders

Growth Curve


Growth Curve

Here’s some slim science on temper tantrums

toddler crying on floor

Big emotions can overwhelm small people, but most tantrums probably don’t have easy solutions.

Sponsor Message

Someone new has entered my life — a tiny, ear-splitting maniac who inchworms across the entire living room on her arched, furious back. My 3-year-old daughter hasn’t thrown temper tantrums, but to our surprise, her 1½-year-old sister is happy to fill that void.

Last week, my pleasant yet firm, “No, you can’t eat the stick of butter,” sent my toddler down to the floor, where she shrieked and writhed for what felt like an eternity. I’ve learned that talking to her or even looking at her added fuel to her fiery fit, so there’s not much to do other than ride out the storm.

It’s awful, of course, to see how miserable a kid is in the throes of a tantrum. And the fact that she can’t fully express her little heart with words just makes it worse.  Adults, with our decades of practice, have trouble wrangling big emotions, so it’s no surprise that children can be easily overcome.

Because tantrums offer glimpses into the expression of strong emotions, they are a “compelling phenomenon for scientific study,” psychologist James Green of the University of Connecticut and colleagues wrote in a 2011 paper in the journal Emotion. I agree, by the way, but I am also supremely relieved that I am not the one studying them. To catch tantrums in their native habitat, the scientists outfitted 13 preschoolers with special onesies with microphones sewn into the front, and waited for the kids to lose their minds.

This masochistic experiment caught 24 emotional tsunamis in 2- to 3-year olds. By analyzing the sounds contained in them, the researchers could deconstruct tantrums into five types of noises, each with its own with distinct auditory quality. At the most intense end of the acoustic spectrum was the screams. The acoustical assault slowly eased as sounds became less energetic yells, cries, whines and fusses.

Screams and yells are more similar to each other, forming a group of sounds that often mean anger, the authors suggest. Cries, fusses and whines also group together, representing sadness. This excruciatingly detailed breakdown hints that tantrums have underlying structures. Sadly, the results do not tell us parents how to head off tantrums in the first place.

Simple preventives like keeping kids well-fed, rested and comfortable can stave off some meltdowns, but beyond those basics, we may be out of luck. My somewhat fatalistic view is that when faced with unruly emotions, some kids just can’t help themselves. After all, my older daughter doesn’t throw tantrums, at least not yet.

Yet I do suspect that my own behavior is involved. An illuminating study in the August 2013 Journal of Behavioral Medicine hints that parents of tantrum-prone kids can curb tantrums (or at least their perceptions of tantrums) by somehow changing their own behavior. After eight days of giving their kids “flower essence,” an inert substance sold as a tantrum reducer, parents reported fewer outbursts from their kids. The effect was “placebo by proxy,” meaning that the parents’ beliefs in the product — and possibly their subsequent behavior — may have transferred to their kids. So just believing that their kid is going to throw fewer tantrums led the parents to believe that their kid threw fewer tantrums.

The study couldn’t say whether tantrums actually decreased or parents just perceived fewer of them. But really, either one would be an improvement in our house. Either that or my toddler is going to eat a lot of butter.    

Toxicology,, Health

Science may get sidelined in artificial turf debate

By Beth Mole 3:52pm, April 21, 2015
Despite news reports about the potential harms of artificial turf, studies find synthetic fields have few health risks, although lead levels may be elevated in older fields.
Neuroscience,, Human Development

In babies, turning down inflammation soothes the hurt

By Tina Hesman Saey 10:00am, March 16, 2015
Babies don’t feel nerve pain because their immune systems tamp down inflammation.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

A little tablet time probably won’t fry a toddler’s brain

By Helen Thompson 4:00pm, February 26, 2015
Good or bad, the effects tablet and smartphone use among toddlers demand more research.
Health,, Human Development

Even when correct, diagnoses can harm kids

By Lila Guterman 11:50am, January 30, 2015
Overdiagnosis is well documented in adults but is often overlooked in children and can lead to unnecessary treatments.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

What’s in a nap? For babies, it may make long-lasting memories

By Ashley Yeager 5:33pm, January 14, 2015
Taking naps after learning seems to help babies less than a year old make memories and keep them, for about a day anyway.
Human Development,, Neuroscience

A bilingual brain is prepped for more than a second language

By Lisa Seachrist Chiu 10:00am, December 31, 2014
Bilingual and multilingual people make efficient decisions on word choices, neural exercise that may protect the aging brain.
Mental Health,, Science & Society

For kids, news coverage can bring distant tragedy home

By Laura Beil 2:30pm, December 1, 2014
Media coverage of disasters and other major events can have an emotional effect on kids. Experts suggest that parents limit news exposure and discuss tough topics.
Human Development,, Mental Health

The kids will be all right

By Laura Sanders 7:25pm, November 19, 2014
Children are generally as resilient as adults when it comes to acute trauma, and studies suggest that a little stress and exercise might help kids cope with disasters.
Neuroscience,, Human Development

Moms are more likely than dads to chat with newborns

By Laura Sanders 7:00am, November 3, 2014
Even when fathers are around, mothers tend to talk to their babies more and respond to infants’ vocalizations.
Health,, Microbes

There’s no need to panic about enterovirus

By Laura Sanders 9:00am, October 22, 2014
The enterovirus behind this year’s outbreak, EV-D68, has been around for decades and generally causes mild symptoms.
Subscribe to RSS - Growth Curve