Dr. Michael Potegal and his research team at the University of Minnesota have discovered that toddlers having tantrums are angry and sad at the same time, rather than, as the conventional wisdom would have it (at least in Minnesota), that anger comes first during a tantrum, followed by sadness.
They discovered this by dressing toddlers in onesies with microphones sewn into them (the onesies, not the toddlers). Once at home the parents pressed a “go” button and waited. Sooner or later some perceived injustice would lead to a first-class meltdown, and researchers were rewarded with a high-quality audio recording of the whole fit. After a hundred or so recordings, they found that the hubbub of a tantrum rises and fades in a definite pattern:
“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.”
Startling news, no?
The U of M team also discovered that trying to talk to a mid-tantrum toddler only tends to make things worse, which brings to mind this old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, in which you need only substitute the word “toddlers” for “dogs” to understand how much good it does to try to reason with a crazy-angry eighteen month-old.
There is a serious and possibly beneficial side to this research. By analyzing tantrums, Dr. Potegal and his colleagues hope someday to be able to distinguish those that are normal parts of development from those that may be warning signs of an underlying emotional disorder.
In the meantime, I often invoke the words of one of my pediatric attendings from the late 1970s in discussing tantrums with beleaguered parents. A veteran of five children of his own, he was a great believer in simply walking away from a screaming toddler.
“Think of a tantrum as a performance,” he told us. “If you want the play to close down, stop buying tickets.”