Taming Tantrums
March 3rd, 2012
Tantrums – Sometimes it’s Just the Way the Cookie Crumbles. By Dr Clare Bailey
The biscuit breaks and your two year old screws up his eyes, opens his mouth and wails loudly. I remember situations like this with my son – there I would be, trying to piece the broken biscuit back together, whilst attempting to explain as best I could to my wailing toddler without going into the laws of physics, that it really was still the same biscuit… to no avail. His wild demonstrations of fury and tragedy would continue unabated. 

Research has demonstrated that tantrums appear to have a pattern and rhythm to them, no matter what the cause or how long they go on for. The pediatric neurologist Potegal and his team developed a ‘onesie’ with an inbuilt microphone and analysed in detail the sounds or ‘vocalisations’ toddlers make during the course of a tantrum.
It had previously been assumed that tantrums have two main phases; ‘anger’ (yelling, screaming, bashing and throwing things), followed by ‘sadness’ (crying and wimpering). However the researchers found that these phases were intertwined. It seems that sad sounds tended to occur throughout tantrums; superimposed on them were sharp peaks of yelling and screaming – anger.
Potegal suggests that the quickest way to end the tantrum is to get the child past the ‘peaks of anger’. What is left is the sadness, and sad children tend to reach out for comfort. The quickest way to help your child to get over the anger phase is to do nothing. (Clearly my attempts to explain the physics of broken biscuits was getting us nowhere). Of course a child in this state is unable to process anything beyond his overwhelming fury and distress. As Potegal says, ‘There's an anger trap. Even asking questions can prolong the anger — and the tantrum.’
So this means parents are best not engaging with their child, other than keeping them safe, during the anger phase. During this time, ideally the parent needs to appear ‘neutral’, by not making contact with their child and not talking to them, until they have calmed down enough and can be comforted. This is a form of ‘time out’, with the parents watching for the moment when their child moves to the sadness phase, at which point they can reach out to give comfort and a cuddle. Being aware of this can give back a sense of control to parents in a stressful situation. Sometimes parents need a brief ‘time out’ themselves, to calm down.  
Lots of broken biscuits later, and after helping many parents who are struggling with their child’s tantrums, I can see that it really helps to recognise and understand the anger and sadness phases. This helps one to stay calm and spot the moment when it helps to offer comfort and to re-engage with warmth and positive attention.
These phases are well demonstrated in the following video link.

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