By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC
If just reading the headline makes you want to cringe, relax. We have all been there. The complete meltdown accompanied by a strawberry-colored face, salty streaming tears and screams that only dogs could hear. Yep, we know it well.
Although we have experienced it, sometimes we cannot figure out why. Is he angry or sad? Is he sick? Is he in pain? Did we pour the juice in the wrong colored cup?
Researchers at the University of Connecticut published a study in the journal Emotion on this very topic. They studied 13 toddlers, ages 2 and 3 years old, and their method was pretty unique. Parents placed the child in a onesie equipped with a microphone and transmitter that recorded the child’s sounds for up to four hours at a time. Vocalizations were categorized as screams, yells, cries, whines and fusses.
Children this age have yet to develop an adequate vocabulary to communicate how they feel. So, yelling and crying, and sometimes throwing items and hitting people or things, are the only way they know how to express themselves. The research study identified that screams and yells were associated with feelings of anger, while cries, whines and fusses were associated with sadness.
Christine Powers, mother of three, identifies with the results. She said she knew when her children were frustrated because they tended to become louder with their tantrums. “Usually they scream, a lot of repeating themselves with urgency about an issue that in normal circumstances would not affect them,” she said. “A dog stepping on the corner of their blanket causes the world to end and then I know they are at the end of their rope.”
The reason behind the frustration is typically because they are tired, sick or overwhelmed. “Right now, we are experiencing a lot of this due to a younger sibling trying to keep up and be heard,” she said.
Powers brings up a good point: being heard. It is something we all want, whether we are 3 or 83. Once you recognize the root cause for your child’s tantrum, validate his feelings. Saying things like, “I know you are angry right now” or “I feel sad sometimes too” lets your child know that it is normal to have these feelings and that you are here to help.
Although you want to normalize their feelings, children need to know that some behaviors, such as hitting people or breaking items, are not acceptable. Instead, redirect them to expressing themselves in a healthier way. In my practice, I encourage parents to create an “angry box.” Fill a plastic bin with items such as scrap paper, play dough and a punching balloon. When you recognize your child is amping up to tantrum level, remind him to go to the “angry box” so he can learn how to help himself manage his emotions. Children can work out their frustrations by tearing the paper, squeezing play dough or a stress ball, or hitting a punching balloon.
For children who are dealing with sadness, you can also include soothing items, such as soft plush toys, a piece of candy or pictures of their favorite people or places. It may take a few tantrums for your child to get into the habit of using these items to cope, and that is OK. How many times have we, as adults, thrown “tantrums” only to realize there was a better way to handle our feelings? Model your own healthy coping skills so your child will do the same. It is an important skill to pass down to future generations.