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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Today in "Your Health," temper tantrums. Parents dread them. If you have young children in your family, you may have witnessed one recently. So far, hard science hasn't had much to say about tantrums, but that's changing. New research has the potential to help adults cope with one of the most traumatic rites of parenthood, and to turn what is widely seen as a dreaded event into a cause for curiosity. NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: If you're driving or doing something that requires your full attention, be warned. You're about to hear something very distracting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: That's Katrina Doudna of Sunnydale, California. She was 3 when she had that tantrum. She's 5 now. Katrina used to have lots of tantrums. Her mother, Noemi Doudna, says the triggers often made no sense.

NOEMI DOUDNA: When she was in the midst of a tantrum, she'd pick something that she knew was completely unreasonable. I don't want my feet! Take my feet off! I don't want my feet! I don't want my feet!

VEDANTAM: Noemi and her husband, David, tried everything. They tried to wait the tantrums out. They tried time-outs. Nothing worked. Noemi would sometimes even play along to show Katrina how unreasonable she was being.

NOEMI DOUDNA: I once teased her, which turned out to be a big mistake. But I once said, well, OK, let's go get some scissors and take care of your feet. No!

VEDANTAM: There was nothing wrong with Katrina. Small kids just have tantrums. Some have lots of them. Tantrums may be traumatic for parents, but they're mostly normal behavior. So science hasn't paid much attention to them, until now.

JAMES GREEN: My name's James Green.

VEDANTAM: James Green is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut. He and a colleague have developed a new theory of tantrums. Green's going to apply his theory to one of Katrina Doudna's tantrums. He's going to give us a play-by-play analysis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: But first, I want him to tell you how he collected his data.

GREEN: We developed a onesie that toddlers can wear, that has a high-quality, wireless microphone sewn into it. Parents put this onesie on the child, and press a go button on the equipment.

VEDANTAM: And then everyone waits to see if the toddler has a meltdown. Over time, the researchers collected more than 100 screaming, crying and shouting performances. When they analyzed the audio files, the scientists discovered something. Here's Green's colleague, Michael Potegal of the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL POTEGAL: We have the most quantitative theory of tantrums that has ever been developed in the history of humankind, he said modestly.

VEDANTAM: You heard that right. A scientific theory of tantrums. By breaking down the audio recordings, Potegal and Green found that tantrums follow rules. Screams and yells usually come together. Throwing things, and pulling and pushing, happen together. Crying, whining, and falling down on the floor go together.

Now, the old theory of tantrums is they have two stages. The child gets angry; that's the shouting and kicking and screaming. And she ends in tears. So tantrums start angry, and end sad.

POTEGAL: The impression that tantrums have two stages is incorrect. In fact, the anger and the sadness are more or less simultaneous.

VEDANTAM: Green and Potegal found that different tantrum sounds have distinct audio signatures. When you plot the sounds on a graph, you see how different sounds emerge and fade during a tantrum. Sad sounds, like whimpering and crying, occur throughout the tantrum. But superimposed on them, you see sharp peaks - yelling and screaming. That's the anger.

The trick, Potegal says, is to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once you do that, what's left is the sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort. The quickest way past the anger - do nothing. Don't shout, don't hit, don't try to comfort the child. But when a child's screaming, it's hard to do nothing.

POTEGAL: When I'm advising people about anger, I say there's an anger trap.

VEDANTAM: Even asking questions can prolong the anger, and prolong the tantrum. I asked Green to apply the new theory to one of Katrina Doudna's tantrums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: Noemi Doudna videotaped this tantrum. When the video starts, Katrina is being carried by her dad, David. It's dinnertime. Katrina wants to sit at the head of the dining table. Problem is, there's no head at this dining table. The table's round.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOTAPE)

KATRINA DOUDNA: I don't want to sit at it! No!

VEDANTAM: Katrina's kicking and screaming. She's angry. You can see David falling into the anger trap. He asks a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID DOUDNA: Which corner do you want to sit at?

KATRINA DOUDNA: No!

VEDANTAM: As a father, Green's fallen into the same trap himself. As a researcher, he knows it's a mistake.

GREEN: When children are at their peak of anger, and they're screaming and they're kicking, probably asking questions might prolong that period of anger.

VEDANTAM: He thinks it's because the child is already overwhelmed.

GREEN: It's difficult for them to process information. And to respond to a question that the parent's asking may be just adding more information into the system than they can really cope with.

VEDANTAM: It's better, Green says, to keep things simple. Issue short commands like, sit down; go to your room. I asked Green how the new theory might predict where Katrina's tantrum would go.

GREEN: If it follows the pattern that we think is sort of classic, we would expect it to build up to word lists; very high-pitched, very intense screaming like, you know, you hear in a horror movie.

VEDANTAM: OK. Ready?

DAVID DOUDNA: Do you know what? It doesn't have a corner, 'cause it's round. It's a circle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

VEDANTAM: Notice how fast we've gone from crying to screaming? Remember how Green and Potegal said tantrums tend to have sad sounds superimposed by surges of anger? Those peaks of anger usually come early in a tantrum.

GREEN: Tantrums tend to often have this flow, where the buildup is quite quick to a peak of anger.

VEDANTAM: In the video, David Doudna ignores the screaming. He does exactly what Potegal and Green would have advised. Katrina can't decide which chair to sit at, so he makes the decision.

DAVID DOUDNA: I'm going to pick you - this chair for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

KATRINA DOUDNA: No! No! No!

VEDANTAM: Now initially, it looks like David has made the wrong call. Katrina doesn't like the chair. She hops off. She's on the ground now. She grabs a loose chair, and she slams it against a wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIR SLAMMING)

VEDANTAM: It's looks like the tantrum is escalating. But in fact, what the new theory suggests is exactly the opposite.

GREEN: Once she's thrown herself on the floor and thrown something - or in this case, knocked the chair against a wall - we're probably on the down slope of this tantrum. She's spent a lot of energy - screaming, yelling, and now doing these physical behaviors.

VEDANTAM: The scream was a peak. No one can stay that angry for long; it's exhausting. I asked Green what sounds he expected next from Katrina.

GREEN: Probably something in the vocal domain like crying or whining. There's been so much energy expended. The child knows that they've been out of control. That leads to a sense that they'd like some comfort from the parents.

VEDANTAM: Listen to Katrina, and pay close attention to how the register of her voice changes.

KATRINA DOUDNA: No. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHIMPERING)

VEDANTAM: This tantrum, from scream to whimper, took only a minute. But in a paper they published in the journal Emotion, Green and Potegal argue that no matter how long tantrums last or how often they occur, they follow the same pattern. When Potegal now sees a child having a meltdown at a grocery store, he says he watches to see how well the tantrum fits the pattern he's identified.

POTEGAL: When we're walking down the street or see a child having a tantrum, I comment on the child's technique. Mutter to my family, good data, and they all laugh.

VEDANTAM: What this means is that if you start to observe tantrums like scientists do, instead of experiencing them like parents do, they stop being traumatic. They may even become interesting. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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