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6 Things You Don’t Know About Tantrums


My daughter threw her first tantrum on my birthday. We were out at a restaurant, trying to celebrate, reluctant to exclude our eighteen-month-old by hiring a babysitter. Bad mistake: As soon as dinner arrived, she wanted out of her highchair. Then she started wailing, so my husband whisked her out of the restaurant. I ate a few bites of my dinner, alone, before I gave up and doggy-bagged the rest. Happy birthday? Yeah, right.

Since then, my daughter’s outbursts have grown longer, stronger, and more varied in pitch and pacing. They’ve made me wonder: Is this normal? And, dear god, how can I make them stop? I was soon relieved to find that tantrums aren’t just the bane of parenthood, but a subject of serious scientific study. At the University of Minnesota, highly sensitive microphones were sewn inside onesies to record meltdowns at close range. At the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey, researchers gave toddlers toys, then took them away to see how they’d react (in general, not good). Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a 118-question quiz called the Multidimensional Assessment of Preschool Disruptive Behavior to gauge the difference between a normal hissy fit and a potential sign of mental problems. All of this has heralded in a wealth of research that can give parents a fresh perspective.

Consider these six surprising facts to help you cope during your child’s next meltdown so you don’t lose it, too.

1. Tantrums follow a predictable pattern

They may look like pure chaos, but tantrums are actually more like a symphony, with predictable peaks and denouements. Phase one involves yelling and screaming; phase two throwing objects or oneself on the floor. While the flailing of phase two may seem like an escalation, it’s actually a sign the tantrum’s past its apex and headed downhill, giving way to phase three: crying and whining. Parents should wait until phase three before intervening to comfort their child. Only what should you do to soldier through phase one and two?