Science of Parenting: All about Tantrums

AMES, Iowa — When children throw tantrums, which comes first: the screaming or the crying? Michael Potegal knows — and has the video evidence to prove it. The University of Minnesota researcher talks about his video study of tantrums in this month’s Science of Parenting podcast from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.unhappy child

By videotaping actual tantrums, Potegal, a UM associate professor of pediatric clinical neuroscience, has been able to note the detail of what happens when children have tantrums.

People have the impression that during a tantrum, the child is angry first, which then turns to sadness. It’s an understandable impression, because the anger “is literally in your face and gets your attention. Folks don’t notice that it’s against a fairly steady background of whining and crying and so forth,” Potegal said.

During the 30-minute Science of Parenting podcast, program host Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and extension specialist at Iowa State, “parent-on-the-street” Mike Murray and Potegal discuss the emotions related to the yelling, crying and whining of tantrums.

The podcast is available for free download from the Science of Parenting website or can be subscribed to in iTunes.

The Science of Tantrums

Scientists’ understanding of tantrums has been “fuzzy,” Potegal said. “Even in scientific literature, all the behaviors that the kids do tend to be lumped together and labeled tantrums. It’s never been quite clear what exactly the children do when, and if some children do one thing and others do another."

Potegal’s approach has been to study the phenomena of tantrums. “They need to be studied on their own terms rather than being squeezed into some preconception,” he said. “The point of the study that we did was to find out how emotions work.”

He recently studied children who had tantrums at least two to three times per week that lasted for a minute or longer. He selected children who had tantrums frequently enough that they could be captured on video, and whose parents were willing to let the cameras roll during the tantrums. The study was conducted in the children’s homes with parental permission, special equipment and two cameras. The goal was to capture the complete tantrum, from whatever triggered it until it was over.

“The study was about understanding emotion, and its most direct application is to issues of children’s mental health … things like, what counts as a normal tantrum, and when can we tell from tantrum characteristics that there’s something more problematic going on,” he said.

Potegal noted that younger children, age 18-24 months, have more frequent and shorter tantrums, one to two times per day to two to three times a week. By age 4-5 years, tantrums are less frequent but longer. If children this age are having tantrums one to two times per day, there might be cause for concern, Potegal said.

Anger and Distress

Behaviors during tantrums are grouped around two emotions, Potegal said. Yelling, screaming, hitting and kicking are related to anger, while crying, whining and fussing are related to distress or sadness.

“Anger-related behaviors tend to occur during the beginning of the tantrum, peak somewhere around a third of the way through, and then decline over time,” he said. “The sadness or distress-related behaviors, which are crying, whining and dropping to the floor, tend to remain relatively constant in probability over the course of the tantrum. That was a major finding. Comfort-seeking is also a distress-related behavior, but it occurs toward the end of the tantrum after anger has diminished.”

Science of Parenting Resources for Parents

The Science of Parenting podcasts offer research-based parenting advice from experts across the country. The monthly podcasts are available for free download from the Science of Parenting website,, or can be subscribed to in iTunes. Each month a new, 30-minute Science of Parenting program will be available, as well as previous podcasts and other research-based parenting information.

Through the Science of Parenting blog,, ISU Extension and Outreach specialists share and discuss research-based information and resources to help parents rear their children. Parents can join in the conversation and share thoughts and experiences, as well as how they handle parenting responsibilities.