So, does your child ever throw tantrums? Yes? Well, the good news is that you’re not alone. And this isn’t something us Western parents have brought upon ourselves with our strange parenting ways; they’re actually fairly common (although not universal) in other cultures as well.
What causes a tantrum? And what can parents do to both prevent tantrums from occurring and cope with them more effectively once they start? Join us today to learn more.
Denham, S.A., & Burton, R. (2003). Social and emotional prevention and intervention programming for preschoolers. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers
Green, J.A., Whitney, P.G., & Potegal, M. (2011). Screaming, yelling, whining, and crying: Categorical and intensity differences in vocal expressions of anger and sadness in children’s tantrums. Emotion 11(5), 1124-1133. DOI: 10.1037/a0024173
Goodenough, F. (1931). Anger in young children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lancy, D.F. (2015). The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, changelings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Levine, L.J. (1995). Young children’s understanding of the causes of anger and sadness. Child Development 66(2), 697-709.
LeVine, R., & LeVine, S. (2016). Do parents matter? Why Japanese babies sleep soundly, Mexican siblings don’t fight, and American families should just relax. New York: Public Affairs.
Lieberman, M.D., Eisenberger, N.E., Crockett, M.J., Tom, S.M., Pfeifer, J.H., & Way, B.M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science 18(5), 421-428.
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. This episode is called “Does your child ever throw tantrums?” Is that kind of like asking whether you have time to read all of the scientific research published in journals on topics relevant to parenting? (You answered “of course!” to both, right?)
Actually if you wanted to research the scientific literature on tantrums it wouldn’t take you all that long because there really isn’t much of it. As far as I could find, the first, last, and only detailed work on this subject was published in 1931. Then the research went quiet for a lot of years, and the pace didn’t really pick up again until the 1980s. Even since then the research has been a bit thin on the ground – I wonder whether it’s because tantrums are so hard to study in the lab, and because few people have the time, money, and energy to study them in the home. Whatever the reason, it is a little odd that there’s so little information out there on something that’s pretty important to a lot of parents.
I’m not going to lie; this is a bit of an altruistic episode for me. We’ve been incredibly lucky with our two-year-old; she has thrown a few moderate tantrums and we certainly get episodes of whining and crying but they are almost always explained by tiredness at the end of the day. I know we’re not out of the woods yet so hopefully this episode will help me to be extra-prepared just in case we round a corner one day and she decides that tantrums are the ‘in’ thing and she’s just got to have one!
Tantrums are really common in children between the ages of 18 months and four years – in fact, they’re among the most common childhood behavioral problems reported by parents. While most children do grow out of their tantrums and don’t experience lasting ill-effects, tantrums in older children can be associated with future antisocial behavior. I was curious to find out whether tantrums are a phenomenon limited to Western, Educated, Rich, Industrialized, Democratic (or WEIRD) societies, and also whether they are a development that has arisen since we’ve started to put children’s needs above our own.
I was somewhat gratified to find that tantrums do seem to occur in other cultures. Robert and Sarah LeVine’s recent book Do Parents Matter? cites an anthropological study of the Matsigenka tribe in Peru where one toddler who is apparently representative of the broader culture was described as threatening to hit his mother, throwing twigs and dirt at her, falling to the ground screaming, and engages in long dramatic wailing. Most tantrums are harmless, but an almost four year-old “accidentally” (the emphasis is in the original text) set fire to his house which burned to the ground, along with everything in it. The anthropologist said that tantrums in Matsigenga toddlers seem to be related to the toddlers’ realization that they can no longer intimidate and manipulate with tears, and that when the tantrum phase is finally over the children are more self-reliant, calm, and responsible. David Lancy’s book The Anthropology of Childhood cites several studies of other cultures that mention tantrum-like behavior, although these mostly show a very direct correlation between weaning and tantrums. A woman from the !Kung people in the Kalahari Desert who was interviewed in old age said “Some mornings I just stayed around and my tears fell and I cried and refused food. That was because I saw him (meaning her brother) nursing. I saw with my eyes the milk spilling out. I thought it was mine.” Pira-ha infants in Brazil are treated with great attention and affection but when newly weaned children throw enormous tantrums, screaming for hours and injuring themselves in the epileptic-like “fits,” they will be studiously ignored by everyone. Certainly not all tantrums are precipitated by weaning, especially since here in the U.S. we typically wean much earlier than tantrums begin.
Another anthropologist studied the people on the Micronesian islands of Palau in the Pacific, and specifically described an incident where a five-year-old wants his mother to hold him but she has decided – without telling him – that today is the first day he will start to grow up, and she just ignores his pleas. Again, he throws what we would think of as a very typical tantrum, and indeed other people who witness it see it as nothing remarkable at all. Girls in Palau seem to have an easier transition than boys because they are kept on a tighter leash to begin with, and we would also see 5 to 6 year-olds having tantrums as rather old by American standards. Robert and Sarah LeVine, authors of the recent book “Do Parents Matter?” note that tantrums are found widely among populations but are not universal culturally or individually. So at least tantrums aren’t something we’ve brought on ourselves with our western ways!
The fact that there was a book published in 1939 specifically to describe tantrums implies that this is not a new phenomenon, although the move toward children’s dominance in the social hierarchy was underway by then. This book was written by Florence Goodenough at the University of Minnesota, who somehow convinced mothers of 45 children to keep exhaustive diaries of their children’s tantrums for periods of time varying between six and 133 days. Only mothers with at least some college training were allowed to participate because “the making of the records would necessarily require a greater degree of intelligence and education than is possessed by the average parent in the general population.” Goodenough extends her gratitude to these parents in the foreword but it doesn’t seem as though she paid them for the massive amount of time they spent cataloguing the frequency and duration of tantrums, behavior during the tantrums, triggers, and what the parents did to preempt or shorten the tantrums. We might question the validity of data reported by parents – even if they are intelligent enough to complete the form properly they may have an incentive to lie about the events in question – especially the triggers and what they did to shorten the tantrums. But if we accept that the methodology and small sample size aren’t insurmountable obstacles, we can learn some valuable things. Firstly, that tantrums seem to peak between the ages of 1 and 2 at a rate of 1.4 outbursts per hour of observation, declining somewhat linearly to around 0.6 outbursts per hour at age 5. There is some tendency for long outbursts to become less frequent as the child gets older, although it’s possible that the older child just manifests anger in different ways (like pouting and sulkiness) which parents don’t categorize as a tantrum.
Children who have older siblings have more frequent outbursts than first-born children. Goodenough says that this is likely because younger children in the family are often the victims of attempted domination by their older siblings and because the younger child can’t fight back they show anger for the purpose of summoning an adult to their assistance. I wonder whether there’s also an element of the younger child learning the behavior from the older children, especially if it tends to get the older children what they want. Rest also seems to seems to be a factor – there was an uptick in frequency of outbursts after 8pm, and also on days after nights when the child didn’t sleep well.
The immediate causes of tantrums changed over time. Only two infants who were less than a year old participated in the study so you need to particularly take these results with a grain of salt, but objections to routine habits like dressing, bathing, and eating accounted for 25% of outbursts in this group. A general desire for attention made up 27%, and various minor physical discomforts are responsible for 23% of all cases. In children older than one the objections to routine habits were up slightly to 28%, with an additional 27% resulting from conflicts with authority over things not directly concerned with habitual activities (so things like touching something the child isn’t supposed to touch). These conflicts with authority become even more important in the second year, switching places with the difficulties over routine habits, and followed by social problems with playmates. Problems with self-help increase throughout this time, probably as children try to do more things for themselves and find – at least initially – that taking care of yourself is a skill that needs to be learned and doesn’t always come naturally.
Goodenough also asked the mothers to record what they did in response to tantrums. Trying to reason with the child or ignoring it were the most frequent methods used, along with diversion of the child’s attention. She then tried to see whether certain methods were more effective at stopping a tantrum (i.e. were particular methods always the last ones used before a tantrum ended), whether certain methods were used for children who had few tantrums compared with those who had a lot, and whether certain methods tended to produce after-effects like resentment and sulking. I found the results pretty interesting: bribery, granting the child’s desire, removing the source of trouble, diverting attention, providing a substitute activity, ignoring the outburst, and isolation were most effective at stopping a tantrum quickly. Coaxing, soothing, reasoning and scolding usually had to be reinforced using another method. On the subject of trying to decrease the overall frequency of tantrums, granting the child’s desire, removing the source of trouble, coaxing, and soothing are used more often by the parents of children who have frequent outbursts while diverting the child’s attention, reasoning, ignoring the outburst, isolation, and scolding are used more often by parents of children who don’t have many tantrums. Resentment and sulkiness are reported much more frequently among children who have a lot of tantrums than who don’t have many, no matter what method of attempted control was used. And, finally, Goodenough asked parents at the beginning of the study what methods of controlling tantrums they used and correlated that data with the data reported by parents during the study, and found that there were very many discrepancies between what parents said they did conceptually at the beginning of the study and then what they actually reported doing right after a tantrum.
I was very interested to see the list of control methods Goodenough asked her mothers to choose between as they kept their journals doesn’t really describe the way I’ve been handling tantrums. For example, this morning as I laid my 27 month-old on her changing table to changer her overnight diaper she announced that she wanted to “make some ‘cone,” by which she meant she wanted to make some scones from scratch – something we do fairly often, but not at 7:30am on a school day. I said “I’m sorry; we can’t make scones this morning; we have to go to school” to which she wrinkled up her face, started crying and wailing “make some ‘cone!”. I said “You really want to make scones, huh?” and she said “Yeees.” At that moment I realized her diaper had overflowed and we needed to get her dressed immediately rather than keeping on her warm pajamas until after breakfast. I said “uh oh; your clothes are wet. We need to get dressed now.” She said “Nooooo! Keep ‘jamas on!”. I said quite firmly “I’m sorry; your clothes are wet. We have to get you dressed.” At which point she acquiesced and we got her dressed, while I acknowledged “I bet you didn’t want to take your warm pajamas off on a cold morning. I wouldn’t either.” By the end of it she had distracted herself looking at some dry skin on her toe and then skipped off to have banana bread for breakfast.
Now I don’t mean to imply that I hold the key to tantrums, because I don’t – I’m just saying that the methods I use aren’t described in Goodenough’s list of behaviors that she asked the mothers in her study to use to categorize their behavior – I guess I would call them “acknowledging,” “empathizing” and “firmly stating what needs to be done.” I do find that “firmly stating what needs to get done” to be especially useful; I think Carys must recognize my tone when I say it because it often induces compliance. In some instances there is no opportunity for disagreement: I won’t let her sit at breakfast in clothes covered in pee. She must wipe her dirty hands before she leaves the table. She must hold my hand before crossing the street. It’s the situations where there is no thing that must happen that I struggle more – when I’ve read ten books to her and she wants “just tiny one more” and I really don’t want to; when she wants to go in her helping tower in the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner so she can empty out the cutlery drawer and I don’t want to have to put it all away again; she wants to wear two sets of pajamas tonight on the hottest night of the year and I’m worried she won’t be able to get to sleep. In those instances I could put my foot down, but to what end? I don’t want her to feel that my will is always the right way, and I do recognize that this is a cultural choice – there are plenty of cultures where the parent’s will *is* the right way, and that’s just how it is. In middle-class white American culture (I think) negotiation is generally considered to be a valued ability because it can bring about solutions to problems that come as close as possible to satisfying everyone concerned, but it does seem as though the process of teaching that negotiation is a bit messy since it tends to happen when two people want different things which – invariably – leads to an escalation of the toddler’s feelings, if not a full-on tantrum.
One book I read called “Social and Emotional Prevention and Intervention Programming for Preschoolers” acknowledges that the persuasive approach has a low level of power, which means the child takes some time to decide that compliance is a worthwhile choice – this is supported by Goodenough’s research showing that parents who try to persuade often end up backing it up with another method of control. In one sample conversation the authors cite from a different study, six conversational turns are required to get a five year-old to clean up a mess (so, the teacher has to make six requests, five of which are rebuffed before the child finally agrees to help), where the teacher attempts to persistently persuade (by using the same language repeatedly to ask the child for help), redirects, explains, and appeals to the feelings other children will have when they come in to work and find the messy table.
The same book cites a series of studies which found that highly inductive strategies coach children to perceive the social consequences of their digressions (so, “Johnny won’t want to play with you again if you keep taking his toys”) and to empathize and consider the viewpoints of others (for example, “Look, Toby is crying. He wanted to go down the slide first”). The studies found that maternal use of these induction techniques was related to social competence, even across time, during the preschool period. But it may not be only the induction techniques themselves that are useful; adults who use these techniques are more likely to model empathetic and prosocial behaviors themselves, rather than other adults who may be more likely to model assertive and maybe even aggressive behaviors. The authors state that it’s the use of inductive components *along with* the persistent persuasion that makes the right emotional experience for the child – if the message about what you want the child to do is clear and if the child is given the time and space to perform the behavior, the child is likely to perform socially appropriate behaviors in the moment in question and also internalize them for later repetition. This comes back to the point I was making earlier about how I deal with tantrums; I put my foot down when it’s a safety issue and my toddler usually complies willingly because she hears in my voice that it’s a non-negotiable item. But most social environments are inherently negotiable and I think that’s partly why we have trouble gaining compliance. Another part is that we often expect children to behave in a more mature way than they’re capable of – you might want to check out the early episode I did on sharing for more on when children are developmentally capable of understanding other people’s point of view.
One final point I want to make from Florence Goodenough’s study is related to parental consistency. Of course, it’s all too easy to say you will always be consistent and we know from the reports of Goodenough’s mothers before and during her study that what you think you will do in a situation and what you end up doing might well be two very different things. When you’re in the thick of it with a screaming child you tend to do what makes the screaming stop, but that lack of consistency sends a message to the child that if you just keep trying, the parent will eventually cave. Goodenough’s examples illustrate the point well enough that I will read her description of some of the examples of inconsistency in methods of control directly from her book… (p.222)
The concluding observation of the entire book is that (p.248)
There’s a lot more to say about tantrums so I decided to split the research into two parts, the remainder of which I’ll cover in a future episode, where I’ll discuss the more recent research into tantrums and how parents can forestall them to the greatest extent possible, and get through the rest with a minimum of psychological harm to both themselves and the child.
You can find the references for this episode on YourParentingMojo.com; search for “Does your child ever throw tantrums?”.