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On Tantrums and Black Holes

What sustains a tantrum can be different than what starts it.

 Jurik Peter/Shutterstock
Source: Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

This holiday season, I lost track of the number of parents I saw out and about—in a shopping center, or a museum, frantically barking at their young child while she lies writhing on the floor, having the most almighty tantrum. It’s a horrible feeling. We’ve all been there.

One aspect of tantrums that I find particularly interesting (see here for a more formal academic discussion) is how what triggers a tantrum initially can be quite different to what sustains it once it starts. Often, the trigger for a tantrum can be something innocuous, which then sets off a chain reaction of events that each, in effect, make the tantrum worse, not better.

Take an example I saw again and again during the filming of the Secret Lives series: There was one especially sensitive four-year-old boy who I remember in particular. In this scene, he’s in a noisy playroom with 11 other four-year-olds and is finding it especially hard to cope.

Once he’s been in the room for a few minutes, we see this boy go up to another child and try to snatch his toy. Now, this is a child who knows how to share—we’ve seen him, on several occasions, explaining to other children that ‘sharing is caring.' But at this moment, as a consequence of the noisy environment he’s in, his own levels of physiological stress are high—and we know that we’re less in control of our behavior at times when our own emotionality is high. He is unable to do what he knows he should, which is ask—so he snatches. This triggers a wrestling match, which, if you’ve ever actually wrestled for anything with someone your own size, you’ll recognize as something that increases your levels of stress still further. He wins the wrestling match, making his friend burst into tears at top volume—which, again, if you’ve experienced yourself, you will agree is likely to increase your stress still more. This makes the teacher come over and tell him off, which he hates. He is a sensitive boy, aware of his status in the group, and being publicly told off increases his stress still further.

So what’s happened is that something external to the child—the noisy environment he’s in—has triggered a series of events that each have the effect of driving the child’s levels of physiological stress further and further upwards. It’s a little bit similar to research into panic attacks, for example, where similar sorts of self-reinforcing chain reactions have been identified. Something innocuous can trigger a panic attack—in a friend of mine recently, it was chewing nicotine gum, which made his heart rate increase slightly, although he’d forgotten that at the time. But then, once you’re in it, panic attack sufferers often start pacing up and down fast, worrying, and doing all sorts of things that make the problem worse and not better. It’s like a black hole, in a way—the closer you are to the center, the more it pulls you in.

The difference with tantrums, of course, is that often these self-reinforcing cycles are not just in the child alone, but between the child and the parent. We’ve all done it—shouting at a child who is tantruming, deciding to use this as a chance to really discipline them and show them who’s boss. Stress is contagious, so a highly stressed child will, naturally, tend to make you more stressed and consequently more inflexible in your behavior.

Understanding this is important, I think, because it changes our priorities when dealing with tantrums. If a child seems to tantrum particularly at times when you’d least like them to do it—when you’re out in public at a restaurant, or a shopping centre, or a museum—it could be because the very fact of there being lots of people, and lots of noise, is affecting the child—making them more oppositional and less flexible than they’d normally be. And if you respond by becoming oppositional and stricter yourself—which is an entirely natural reaction—then you might unintentionally be making your own life harder.

About the Author
Sam Wass Ph.D.

Sam Wass, Ph.D., researches children’s early emotional development and learning, and how they are related.

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