NPR – What’s Behind A Temper Tantrum?

NPR – What’s Behind A Temper Tantrum?

In an NPR interview, researchers James A. Green and Michael Potegal revealed their findings about the patterns of children’s temper tantrums. By studying audio recordings of over 100 toddler tantrums, Green, Potegal, and Pamela Whitney found that the old idea that tantrums have two distinct stages, anger then sadness, was incorrect. Instead, they found the two overlap: sadness continues throughout, overlaid by spikes of anger.

A YouTube video included in the article demonstrates the pattern and is worth watching. In the video, you see three-year-old Katrina's father, David, carrying her to the table. She is already upset. She wants to sit at the corner of the table, but it's round. David says there is no corner and asks where she wants to sit. The question makes the tantrum worse, so he decides for her. When he sits her in a chair, she screams and slides onto the floor. Yelling and screaming she bangs a stool against the wall once, checks for Dad’s reaction, then throws herself face down for the final phases of the tantrum – kicking, screaming, then tears and sadness.

“The trick in getting a tantrum to end as soon as possible, Potegal said, was to get the child past the peaks of anger. Once the child was past being angry, what was left was sadness, and sad children reach out for comfort.”

The researchers’ conclusion was that the best thing to do is nothing – observe children’s tantrums, but don’t react.

I agree with their conclusion about using observation but disagree strongly with the idea of doing nothing. Instead, observe children’s tantrums out loud with a great deal of empathy and understanding, and give them a way that is OK with you to meet their need for power each time their anger rises.

To do this simply SAY WHAT YOU SEE® (SWYS) the child doing, saying, feeling and thinking while matching the level of the child’s energy as it rises and falls. In this case, it could sound like this:

SWYS: “You want to sit at the corner of the table, and it’s round! Oh, no!!!  There’s no corner!!! That’s just awful!!!  Not here, not there…no corners, and you wanted to sit at one!”

When you start to get some nods, you can try moving into empowerment by offering something specific the child can do or turning the problem-solving over to the child with an all-purpose CAN DO statement like:

CAN DO: “Hmmm.  You want to sit at a corner, and there aren't any. Must be something you can do!”

If the child needs more power, the answer will be, “No! Nothing will work!” to which you respond by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE to make the child right. Being right helps meet a child's need for power; contradicting a child increases the need for power which results in escalation. Responding with questions also increases a child's need for power because questions feel controlling, so they also can result in escalation. De-escalation occurs when you start from where the child is, make her right about what she is saying, and show you understand by matching her level of energy while describing tangible details. If you are wrong, the child will tell you, as in:

SWYS: “There’s nothing you can do! Wow! You want to sit at the corner with your own space right there – your own corner.”

Child: “No. I want to sit by you and Mommy!” (or whatever the wish is)

If the child tells you why sitting at the corner is important, make her right again and return to problem-solving, as in:

SWYS: "I was wrong! You want to sit by me and Mommy!"

CAN DO: “Must be some way you can sit by both of us at a round table. Hmmm.”

When children feel understood, rather than knocking over stools they meet their need for power by problem-solving. In this case, choosing a chair between you would do the trick, but letting the child figure that out would be best.

So what do you do when the wish remains "unreasonable" like:

Child: "Yes, I want my own corner!"

Turn it over to the child. Because children see the world differently than we do, solutions that would work for them might never occur to us. For example, where I might think that the only answer would be to bring in a table with corners, the child might decide that putting a special toy on the table would be enough to say where a corner is. You never know, so remember to turn "impossible" problem-solving over to the child, too. Then your role becomes referee, simply saying:

Boundary/CAN DO: "That's OK with me," or "That's not OK with me. Must be some other way that works for everybody!"

When children come up with solutions, pointing it out as a STRENGTH seals the deal and gives them a tool to draw on next time, as in:

STRENGTH: “You found a way to solve that problem that works for everybody. You're a problem-solver!"

Noemi, Katrina’s mother, said that her daughter often picked unsolvable problems as the focus of her tantrums:

“[Katrina] once said, 'I don't want my feet. Take my feet off. I don't want my feet. I don't want my feet!' When nothing calmed the child down, [the mother] added, "I once teased her – which turned out to be a big mistake – I once said, 'Well, OK, let's go get some scissors and take care of your feet.' Her daughter's response, [the mother] recalled, was a shriek: ‘Nooooo!!’"

Even in the case of unsolvable problems, understanding is still the answer.  De-escalation will occur when you simply SAY WHAT YOU SEE and make the child right, as in:

SWYS: “You don’t want your feet. You want them off, and there they are—stuck right on there. Oh no!”

When children invent unsolvable problems over and over, problem-solving is not in order because the upset is not about that problem. The problem is invented to provide justification for the upset.

For example, in the round table tantrum video, you can see that Katrina was already upset when she was carried into the room. If she felt like her problem or her feelings had been discounted, latching onto an unsolvable problem like finding the corner of a round table would validate her feelings. After all, in kid logic, if you can’t fix a problem, it must be really big and really real! Right?

Tantrums like this can be avoided by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE and validating the child’s feelings at the start. Even if the initial problem doesn’t seem to warrant the level of upset you are seeing, to the child it does. Validate the feelings about the “little” problem, and the child will not need to seek greater proof.

This goes back to the root causes of tantrums that the researchers did not discuss: unmet needs. The things children do to meet their needs for connection and power match the patterns that the researchers observed.

Tantrums often begin when children want something or don’t want something, and feel like they can’t make you understand. On top of that, children often feel that if you don't care about what they want, you don't care about them! This leaves them feeling powerless and disconnected.

Sadness is a child’s response to disconnection and, as the researchers said, compels them to reach out. When their need for connection remains unmet (they don't feel like you care), children start to feel powerless, so anger and aggression kick in to meet that need. Banging chairs, hitting, and screaming feel powerful to kids. When that need is filled, kids return to sadness and again seek connection.

During a tantrum, the need for connection continues, overlaid by the presenting need for power, which rises and falls... depending on your interactions with the child. Contradicting children or focusing on boundaries drives the need for power up, which you can clearly see occurring in the round table tantrum video.

When you understand this, you can see why traditional approaches to tantrums just make them worse: ignoring children increases their need for connection and power as does trying to control them. The answer? Validation.

Validation directly addresses the underlying need for connection that sets the whole thing off to begin with. Our first premise for understanding children explains why:

“Everything children do and say is a communication, and children must continue to communicate until they are heard.”

When children feel like their wishes and wants are not heard and that no one cares, they feel powerless and escalate the communication by yelling, screaming, and acting it out.  It’s the child’s version of, “What do I need to do to make you see? This is important to me!” When you finally “see,” the child’s need for connection is filled and the acting out stops. Children who feel connected can handle anything, even not getting what they want.


  1. Becky Clowers |

    Thanks Sandy. Every time I read about SWYS, it helps support me in following through with it.

    With my child with Down syndrome who is six and has a speech delay, it is really hard to try to find out what he’s saying even when he’s saying it right to you, just in his own language. I want so much to “hear” him! So I do my best to just repeat his grammar to validate what he’s said.

    His response is usually repeating it, like, no, not that, this. But my repeating it does validate him and shows that I’m listening. When I can’t understand, I tell him, “I’m sorry. Show me!” and he usually has something to show me. That’s how I learn his language.

    I also hope that when I repeat it, he does hear what I say is what comes out of his mouth. When I do know what he’s saying, but it’s not the correct enunciation, I work with him syllable by syllable to help him pronounce the word and hear himself.

    He is getting better and we acknowledge him when he says a word very clearly. iPad has been a wonderful tool helping him with cognition and also helping us to see just how observant and smart he is because he is a whiz at picking up these learning programs for writing letters, numbers and spelling, puzzles, etc.


  2. Cassandra Hancock |

    I have a 2.5 year old who has been acting out a lot lately especially with diaper changes. How I would use this approach with a diaper change that he absolutely does not want to have. Any suggestions?

  3. Farial M |

    Thanks Sandy, I have a 6yr old little boy who is on the Autistic Spectrum. We have always had phases of him acting out, but last 5 wks it seems like he’s finding every way possible to push boundaries and acting out. He is able to clearly communicate, knows all the rules (printed copy on our door- he can read) but it doesn’t seem to help as of late.

    We tried to implement a break system for every time he doesnt follow the rules, he will go take the break but as we approach him to talk about what happened, he has a meltdown with screaming and crying and sometimes hitting too.

    Any suggestions on how we can help him get over this phase and feel connected while still following our household rules?

  4. Farial M,

    The last five weeks sound incredibly frustrating for you and for your child! The Autistic Spectrum is quite wide and not my area of expertise, so I cannot add much that is specific to that. What I can say is that “making your child right,” whatever that looks like with your son, will be a critical element in helping him feel understood and reducing the acting out and escalation.

    “Acting out” is exactly what it says–-it’s physically acting out a communication that the child is sure you either don’t understand or don’t want to hear. In the case of a boundary or rule, the communication is usually about what the child wants and how much it matters to them, even if what they want is impossible like I discussed in this post.

    Making your child right while holding your boundary is a coaching skill you can learn that would probably be very helpful. Putting more attention on what your child wants than on the boundary/rule, then stating them as equally important with an “and” (not a “but”), typically leads to problem-solving instead of tantrums.

    You can see this above in the example about the child’s feet when I said: “You don’t want your feet. You want them off, AND there they are—stuck right on there. Oh no!” That the child’s feet are stuck is the boundary. It’s just how it is. Matching the child’s emotions with the “Oh no!” tells them you understand the importance of what they want and their frustration with the situation.

    When you state your rules the same way, with no heat on them and no need for your child to like them, but as just how it is in your house, and match their feelings about them, children find them easier to accept. When you make them right about wanting what they want, they can move into problem-solving more easily.

    With your child’s unique perception of the world and specific condition, there may be more going on than I can guess. What you do know is that he responded to your rules differently before this phase began, so you know the rules are not the problem. It might be worth checking into what happened 5 weeks ago, or what is different now in his world or his perception of his world.

    Especially with the complication of autism, and the possibility that he is entering a new developmental phase, I would recommend that you find a child-centered play therapist to help you understand how to help him move through whatever challenge he is currently facing. One that works with families as well would be ideal, so they can help you develop specific strategies for helping your son feel understood and able to meet his own needs inside your boundaries and your house rules.

    The coaching skills I teach have their roots in play therapy. Several books on my Recommended Reading list could help you understand why play therapy is so powerful and something every child should have the opportunity to experience. In particular, check out Dr. Theresa Kellam’s book The Parent Survival Guide, and Virginia Axline’s book Dibs if you’d like to learn more:

    My Mastery Class teaches the Language of Listening® coaching version of what Dr. Kellam describes, and is in production now. You can watch my newsletter for its launch later this year.

    Thank you for your comment/question and your awareness that using our coaching skills can help you make a difference for any child.

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