Crying kids are a perennial source of stress to parents (not to mention nearby airline passengers). But they’ve also become a topic of serious scientific study. By sewing a highly sensitive microphone inside toddlers’ onesies, James Green at University of Connecticut and Michael Potegal at the University of Minnesota recorded over 100 tantrums and analyzed their phonetic qualities. The results were published in the journal Emotion in a study titled “Screaming, Yelling, Whining, and Crying: Categorical and Intensity Differences in Vocal Expressions of Anger and Sadness in Children's Tantrums.”

So what did the researchers discover? For one, by parsing apart a tantrum’s various elements, they found that certain characteristics tended to clump together. For example, screaming, yelling, and kicking were a common trio, as were throwing, pushing, and pulling or crying, whining, and falling to the floor. They also found that the old two-stage theory of tantrums—that kids start out angry then get sad—isn’t accurate. Instead, both angry and sad emotions occur simultaneously. By analyzing the verbal content, the researchers also came to the conclusion that tantrums rarely make sense. In one audio recording, a three-year-old screams because she wants to sit at the head of the table, but the table is round, which makes her request impossible to fulfill.

Last but by far not least, the researchers found the fastest way to end a meltdown. Trying to reason with your child or ask questions or offer comfort, it turns out, will only exacerbate the tantrum. It’s better to make short direct orders (like “Go to your room”), which are easy for a child to understand in his heightened state. The very best course of action is actually to say nothing at all. That way you’re not adding fuel to the fire, so the tantrum will fade.

About the Author

Judy Dutton

Judy Dutton writes about the quirkier, conversation-worthy discoveries coming out of laboratories today. She's the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season.

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