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It’s definitely, probably, partly…me

I recently reviewed my folder of research papers on tantrums. You don’t have one of those? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? You’re not a parent, you say? IRRELEVANT.

There’s one gem that didn’t make a huge impression on me when I first read it, but after seeing it again, I find I keep thinking about it: Whalley, B., & Hyland, M. E. (2013). Placebo by proxy: The effect of parents’ beliefs on therapy for children’s temper tantrums. J Behav Med 36, 341–346.

In this charming (and pretty well-conducted) study, parents were given a “tantrum reducing” placebo to give to their kids. Most of the kids didn’t know what the purpose of the placebo was*, which is why it’s a placebo by proxy. You think the thing you’re taking is working = placebo. Someone else thinks the thing you’re taking is working = placebo by proxy. Comparing pre- to post-treatment, frequency and severity of tantrums was reduced. My favorite part of the paper was the comments from parents. Here’s one: “Please feel free to use my comments i have told so many people about this and they can’t wait for it to come out on the market. Please let me know where i can purchase some more 4 my son (name). (name) has one tablet a day now, you can tell the difference in his behavior if we have forgotton to give him one. I think this stuff is amazing.”


There are a lot of different dimensions to this picture, but I bet the following will sound familiar to anyone who interacts with other humans, not just toddlers:

The more ragged and impatient I am, the less energy I have to avoid tantrum-inducing situations, the rougher our day. The more tantrums, the more ragged and impatient I become…etc. And on days when I am cheerful, we are all cheerful.

In fact, they also collected data on parents’ mood, and found a small relationship between mood and tantrum severity and frequency. Of course, they can’t say whether better mood caused fewer tantrums or the reverse. But, you know, fuuuuck. It’s like, yeah, that describes my day.

I am not a proponent of the whole YOU SHOULD STRIVE TO BE HAPPY ALL THE FUCKING TIME approach to life. I want to feel what I feel. But leaving the house this morning, I found myself getting sucked into one of those increasingly hostile encounters with my husband. You know, trying to have a conversation about some household item when running out the door and two babies are extremely loud and I find myself thinking that everything in the world is the fault of someone other than me… In short, my version of a tantrum.

The reason this paper keeps coming to mind is that it’s such a solid reminder of something I already know. Tantrums are a normal part of child development. Spats with spouses are a normal part of having a spouse. I don’t MAKE either of them happen, and I don’t need to feel bad and beat myself up about it. But I sure as hell contribute. The default my child/spouse is being unreasonable position can be influenced by something as subtle as a placebo.

Maybe reading this paper can be my placebo.



*Some parents explained, 83% didn’t. They did an analysis to see if that mattered and it did not.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I found I have a lot more sympathy for Gwen’s sleep- and hunger-induced tantrums after I realized a few years ago that I throw my own form of tantrums when I’m either too hungry or too cold. It was a revelation when I realized that I was doing that, and the reminder of how unconscious these reactions are helps me to deal a lot more patiently with Gwen.

    But that study…oh my. I can only imagine what the rest of the parents’ comments were like…

    (And no, I don’t have a folder on toddler tantrum research. But I have the next best thing, which is friends that do. Which is why I knew when I posted my end-of-month recap last week, there was a good chance that someone in the know would respond. which you did. 🙂 )

    April 8, 2014
  2. But aren’t mothers and wives always right? Or almost always, which “almost” is such an insignificant percentage, that it counts as “always” anyway? I believe we are, hence our tantrums have solid, scientific basis. They are not even tantrums. They are mere “reactions to adverse stimuli”. Coupled with “unfavourable conditions”, they turn to what are popularly known as “hissy fits”. Or “stress reactions to adverse stimuli”. My folder on toddler tantrum is useless, it only contains cocktails recipes and bars’ addresses, which I obviously can’t use when the screaming escalates because the last croissant he ate in its entirety five minutes ago is now over and there is no other. And he knew it was the last one but that bit of knowledge does not help him now with the anger.

    April 8, 2014
  3. “I don’t MAKE either of them happen” I feel like we need t-shirts or like a wrist tattoo or something so we can keep reminding ourselves of this. Shit with my husband has been really good lately which is making me think ‘shit it’s about to get bad…..when…..when?’ who knows, but it is coming eventually. ebb and flow. Maybe you need this placebo I like to call margaritas, or if it is morning then mimosas. It is one of those day/night medicines.

    April 8, 2014
  4. Ana #

    Yes. i need to run, but yes, good reminder!!

    April 9, 2014
  5. Me take responsibility? Screw that. Set me up with some of them pills. (Unless there’s an amber necklace version?)

    April 9, 2014
  6. Yep, I do try to look in the mirror about this. And I can tell how things snowball – how one event begets the other and all in the same flavour. But I also appreciate your point about not wanting to force yourself unrealistically fucking happy as that does you a disservice. I’m not sure how I feel about the phrase ‘big girl underpants’ but sometimes I do need to remind myself that – corny as it sounds – I do have a big part in creating what happens to me and how I react to it. And dang those kids for being so darn perceptive and picking up on everything one feels, no matter how you try to hide it. Dang! Darn!

    April 10, 2014
  7. This may surprise you but honestly I thought their tantrums caused my fuse to shorten not the other way around, plus really I CAN DO NO WRONG most days. Kidding on the last part. Can my baby tell that I’m pissed off and we haven’t even made it downstairs yet?! Of course because I let the whole house know. It’s so funny, but I’ve been doing some data collecting in my house based on the tone and advanced language my husband uses with said babies and how they react. (I do not collect data on my own interactions with them as it doesn’t matter what I say to them, the still want me and hold their arms out for me so why bother) They cry harder and call my name louder when he’s in a bad tone/mood day. And he does the same when they are having a lot of tantrums.

    Thank you for putting some perspective into my day. You have saved my thoughts from despair many times. Today when I read this I was finishing up with a tantrum filled crying filled day. This made me feel better AND more normal!

    April 10, 2014
  8. This is something I’m so much more aware of now (partly because I’m sleeping more now, so it’s easier for me to notice when I’m out of sorts, rather than that being the default state.)

    This week, my daughter had her worst afternoon in weeks, but I knew the whole way through that we were fighting with each other, and it was my intolerance that was making her worse. Not sure being aware helped the situation so much as send it into bipolar territory as I kept instigating these calm down periods, hugging and forgiving and reconnecting–and then half an hour later, the next crisis would kick off.

    April 11, 2014
    • OH MAN. That bipolar thing. I really wonder about whether that’s better or worse than me just being grumpy. I think I’ve become a terrified about it after learning that the victims of abuse who end up the most damaged are those with the inconsistent abusers. Like, abusive all the time, okay, kid can learn to cope, but unreliable…really bad. Which is obviously not to compare my behavior (and certainly not yours!) to that of abusers, but yikes. Hard to be a normal human sometimes.

      April 11, 2014
  9. SRB #

    Ah, yes. The Cycle of Doom begets even more Doooooooooom. I often feel like I am trapped in this horrible spiral of chicken vs. egg with the toddler, and I just want to get off this ride. I usually think of you when I remind myself of things like “Yes, use a gentle voice and regulate your own emotions… and also, they need to see that their behaviour makes people angry.” and try to quiet the voice that says “He can see he is making me angry! He is just going to do it more! Stifle the anger! Stifle it!” Trying to find that balance is hard. Taking deep breathes helps….kinda.

    April 11, 2014
  10. Why do you insist on terrifying me about things to come? Why?
    Tantrums. Tantrums are coming. They are around the corner, just almost within sight. But I was happily going along ignoring that fact, and ignoring the need to prepare for them (maybe by filling a pill bottle full of smarties and labelling them ‘Temperoff’)
    But then last week it was toilet training. And now tantrums.
    Why do you insist on showing me reality?

    April 15, 2014

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