Judy Dutton

Judy Dutton

Brain Candy

The Fastest Way to Get Kids to Stop Crying

Scientists take on the toddler temper tantrum.

Posted Mar 29, 2012

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 the 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 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 3-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, Potegal told NPR that based on the researchers' observations, the fastest way to end a meltdown may actually be to do nothing at all until the child's anger fades. That way you’re not adding fuel to the fire.