We are in toddler tantrum hell. It's affecting all of us. My husband and I. My eight-year-old son. It's a constant battle of will and want of an irrational two-year-old. The other day there were four tantrums back-to-back as a result of no nap. Picking up my son from school. "NO!" Riding her tricycle to the end of the street, but not letting her cross on her own. "NO!" Eating dinner when she really wanted to read our cat a Lego Genius book (huh?) "NO!" It was an endless series of crying and screaming.
But according to researcher Michael Potegal via NPR, who recorded children having tantrums, essentially collecting "tantrum sounds," crying and screaming -- i.e., the tantrum -- represents two emotions: simultaneous anger and sadness. So if anger and sadness fuels a tantrum, then how do we get these two powerhouse emotions under control? Basically, Potegal tells us what hard core mothers have been trying to enforce for years: Ignore, ignore, ignore.
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.
Potegal also noted that "asking questions can prolong the anger." Meaning, don't throw information or questions that will exacerbate the tantrum. Says James Green who co-authored the study:
"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."
I think it's hard to do nothing. I have friends who tell me that this is their tactic. Does it work for them? I don't know. I know they can probably tolerate screaming and yelling more than I can. But because I am aware that screaming, "I'm going to give you kids away!" isn't the best way to diffuse a tantrum, I decided to follow a few tips from Patty Onderko's story on Parenting via CNN on how to handle childhood tantrums. She references a friend, Mana Heydarpour, who gives some sage advice:
"When you comfort a child in the middle of a tantrum, you reinforce the behavior. Instead, say 'I'm sorry you're upset. When you calm down, I'll give you a hug and we can talk about what happened.'" This way, you offer support and sympathy while still showing your tot how to regulate his emotions. "Since [her daughter's] meltdown, I've learned to say 'I'm not talking to you while you're behaving like this,'" Heydarpour says. "Ella composes herself so much faster when I manage to do that."
In the end, we can all see-saw our way around tantrums. Do nothing. Do something. Create boundaries. Put them in their rooms. Hug it out. Let them kick and scream on the floor like a wailing gypsy.
Me? On a good day, I try to give my two-year-old choices. I attempt to keep my voice low. If she doesn't respond, then I remove her from the situation and tell her I'll speak to her when she's done screaming.
This is on a good day, folks.
As the researchers said, the sounds of a tantrum can have varying emotions. So can our responses to them.