When your toddler is melting down, it's easy to chalk the tantrum up to anger or frustration (and to get angry and frustrated yourself). But a new study that analyzed the sounds that tots make when their pitching a fit shows that there may be more to a tantrum than just a lot of screaming -- and may offer parents a way to cope.
In the study, which was published in the journal "Emotion," scientists recorded the sounds toddlers make during tantrums and discovered that not only does each type of sound (screaming, yelling, crying, whining, and fussing) have its own "distinct acoustic features," there's a definite pattern to the vocalizations as well.
"Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together," study co-author Michael Potegal, an associate professor of pediatric clinical neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, told NPR. "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."
So, what's really going on when a toddler is having a meltdown? "Frustration certainly is a trigger," James A. Green, head of the department of psychology at the University of Connecticut and a co-author of the study, told Yahoo! Shine. "Blocked goals can results in frustration, which leads to anger. Same is true of adults, actually."
But the scientists also discovered that, contrary to popular belief, toddlers aren't just melting down out of anger, they're also feeling sadness at the same time.
"The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect," Potegal said. "In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous."
Certain conditions can make it more likely that a toddler will melt down, Green points out. "Fatigue or illness can lower the tolerance for frustration," he points out. "Toddlers, or so the conventional wisdom goes, simply do not have as many cognitive 'tricks' up their sleeves to deal with these situations." (Older kids, however, should be better able to deal with such situations, which is why their angry outbursts are called rages, not tantrums.)
1. Wait it out. If your toddler is having a tantrum, there's little you can do other than wait it out, experts say. "My colleague and collaborator, Mike Potegal, talks about 'standing back' during the periods of most intense anger, and I think he means both physically and emotionally," Green says. "Trying to give more information to a child who has already lost control may not be very helpful."
"Best to scoop up your tyke and take her to a place where she can calm down without being disruptive to others," suggests Michelle Nicholasen, a mother of five and the author of "I Break for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old." "Is it a drag for the parent? Oh, yes, and tiring, too. But wait out the storm and it will pass."
2. Don't threaten, cajole, or bribe. You might not be able to control the tantrum itself, but you can control how you react to it, Nicholasen points out. "Parents can make tantrums much worse by yelling at their child to stop, or by threatening them," she says.
Instead of asking questions or trying to reason with a 2- or 3-year-old, simply acknowledge that they're upset. "Toddlers who are in the middle of a meltdown are incapable of hearing our message (reasons, reassurance or warnings) until they're sure we understand and respect their message," says Dr. Harvey Karp, author of "The Happiest Toddler on the Block."
3. Offer comfort. Once children have gotten past what Potegal calls "the peaks of anger," they're more willing to be comforted.
4. Find the humor in the situation. Many parents end up just as frustrated and angry as the child during a tantrum, but as Green points out, tantrums are completely normal -- up to a point. "This too shall pass," he says. "Tantrums are normative events in development and usually decline after age 4."
While you're waiting for your tot to get over his or her anger, having a sense of humor can help. "Imagine a grown-up acting like your child, and you will soon have to stifle a smile," Nicholasen says.
5. Don't take it as a personal failure. "As parents, we are much more self-conscious about being judged when our child is misbehaving in public. The things that go through our minds are: Am I raising my child to be a wild animal? Have I not taught him enough manners? My child is acting like a little brat; what am I doing wrong? But even when you do your best, sometimes a collapse will still happen."
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