A few weeks ago, my 18-month old threw his first tantrum. I had taken something out of his mouth — a bottle cap, an electrical wire, I don’t remember what but it was dangerous — and he lost it. His face crumpled inward, he threw his head back in a howl, and, as he realized that his hazardous teething ring was gone for good, dropped to the floor in despair. The entire theatrical event lasted no more than three minutes, but I was left with a lingering question: We live in a small town, and my son hasn’t met other kids his age or seen a TV, so how did he know how to throw a tantrum? How did he know to kick, scream, and drop to the floor? I mean, my boy’s tantrum choreography was flawless.
I decided to find out, and what I found surprised the heck out of me. Turns out my kid is not a particularly adept protester, but that evolution has endowed him with certain remarkable powers.
“Tantrums are a negotiating tool,” Michael Potegal, pediatric neuropsychologist and tantrum expert at the University of Minnesota told me when I asked about the hissy fit. “We have neural programs for tantrums that have evolved. When kids are experiencing discomfort, whether physical or emotional, they’re likely to erupt into tantrums as a pre-programmed way of trying to rectify the situation.”
Potegal should know. In 2011, he was part of a team of researchers who sewed tiny microphones into onesies to record the vocal patterns behind how kids tantrum. The group found that tantrums thrown by children all over the world follow similar, specific patterns. Their research adds to the growing body of evidence that the anatomy of a tantrum is less nurture than nature.
A Tantrum’s Progress: Anger and Stress
Tantrums usually consist of expressions of two emotions: anger and stress (or what Potegal calls “sadness plus”). Stomping and yelling are “low-intensity” expressions of anger, while kicking, hitting, and physical violence represent high-intensity anger. Meanwhile, whining is the classic low-intensity stress behavior and crying and dropping to the floor are high-intensity stress behaviors. In other words, minor tantrums consist of yelling and whining, while major tantrums often include hitting, crying, and more dire displays of anger and stress.
“We found that you could distinguish the characteristics of shouting, screaming, whining, and crying, consistent with the notion of intensity levels between categories,” Potegal says. “These components seem to be common through all of the tantrums that we’ve analyzed.”
Tantrums also tend to follow a predictable path from explosion to resolution. Tantrums usually begin with the strongest display of anger and then taper off through the tantrum. Stress, on the other hand, tends to remain fairly constant throughout the fit of rage.
“The result is that tantrums almost always end on a distressed note rather than an anger note,” Potegal says.
Survival of the Fittest Tantrum
Children, like adults, express anger when they want something to happen that’s not happening, or when they don’t want something to happen that is happening. So anger is an understandable part of the tantrum. The real question is why tantrums contain so much sadness.
“It’s to elicit sympathy and support,” Potegal says. “Tantrums end on a distressed note as an invitation to parents to support the kid, and as a way to repair the social bonds ruptured by the kid’s earlier anger.”
Although children are wired to display anger when they are challenged, they also implicitly understand that they need their parents for sustenance and survival. Ending a tantrum on an angry note would be an ill-advised evolutionary gambit so it makes sense that kids shift from hard-to-sympathize-with anger to sympathetic sadness as tantrums wind down. What sort of parent can resist a child who is simply sad? Evolution has clearly provided an answer: the exception to the rule.
Dropping to the floor is part of the sympathy courting process, which explains why it’s a common behavior near the end of many blow-out tantrums. “It’s an act of submission,” Potegal says. “In any number of animal species the dominant animal stands up on his hind feet, puffs up his fur, extends his frills, or makes himself bigger, and the subordinate animal crouches, gets close to the floor, makes himself smaller. The dropping to the floor, as part of sadness, is a way of saying ‘I give up.’”
In fact, the entire tantrum process seems to be not only consistent across our species (“I found reports of tantrums in hunter-gatherer groups in South America, Africa, Papua New Guinea”), but even across our taxonomic family of primates. Several monkey and ape species have been observed throwing tantrums with many of the same features seen in human tantrums when their mothers push them away from the nipple. During weaning “the juvenile primate pitches a fit, jumps up and down, screams, tries to bite the mother,” Potegal says, adding that this inevitably leads to mothers offering their primate kids a hairy elbow to suck.
Any behavior so deeply embedded in our nature is likely wired within our brains. Why humans and monkeys, hunter-gatherers and city kids, all tantrum in a telltale wave of anger and distress remains a mystery. But Potegal has a handful of theories. (“It’s all conjecture,” he stresses).
Using Neuroscience and Evolution to Respond to Tantrums
Potegal cites several potential models for how sadness and anger mix in a child’s brain, but one salient theory is that the left hemisphere of the brain controls anger, while the right hemisphere controls sadness — and that, in children, these regions, which are not strictly defined by physical barriers, are wont to overlap. Indeed, one study of four-year-olds found that anger originates in a brain region known as the posterior temporal lobe, which is on the left side of the brain but also in just the right position to set off a chain of events that ultimately activates the right side of the brain. From the posterior temporal lobe, Potegal says, emotions may “propagate forward to the frontal lobe, and then activate the right hemisphere through the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres.”
First of all, the fact that your child — splayed on the floor, sobbing and throwing things — is not only acting normally but acting the way his or her brain is wired to act should provide some solace to a harried parent living through a tantrum. But parents sometimes come to expect that there is something significantly wrong — that the tantrums aren’t, in a sense, close to the natural mean.
For parents truly curious about how their children’s tantrums measure up against our species’ baseline tendency to pitch a fit, there’s the tantrum intensity scale. The scale identifies tantrums with no obvious cause — fits of rage that just come out of the blue — as abnormal. Another way that experts identify abnormal tantrums is by timing them. For two- and three-year-olds, tantrums should not usually last longer than five minutes. For older kids, the limit is likely closer to 15 minutes. And by age six, tantrums should be a rarity.
“The cut off is very much in dispute,” Potegal says. “Perfectly healthy kids are liable to have a particularly long tantrum or two.”
Examining the cause of a tantrum can also give you clues about how to prevent future tantrums like a behavioral scientist. There are three types of tantrums: a demand for attention (hold me), a demand for tangibles (food, games, activities), and an escape from demand (I don’t want to get dressed). The first two can only be solved by ignoring the tantrum. When a child is demanding attention or tangibles, and sees that tantrums do not get them any attention — even negative attention — they quickly learn that it is not a worthwhile negotiating tool.
“But this is exactly the wrong thing to do with the third type of tantrum,” Potegal says. In the third scenario, the child is effectively pitching a fit so you will ignore him or her — not making the child do something is the desired outcome. Instead, when a child throws a tantrum to avoid doing something, the correct approach is to “help” them do it. Potegal recalls telling his child that if she did not get into her pajamas by the time he counted to three, he’d put his hands over her hands and help her do it. This loss of autonomy is exactly what a child is trying to avoid with this third category of tantrum, which is why it’s a more effective response than ignoring the fit.
“If you do that consistently, kids learn very quickly that you’re serious about this intervention and they comply,” Potegal says. “They may grumble and fuss, but they will comply.”