The previous two blogs covered some of what we know about temper tantrums and what you can do to help prevent them. Sometimes this is not enough. Children being children they are going to have a tantrum in spite of your best efforts to avoid them. There are a number of ways to handle a temper tantrum.
The first order of business is perhaps the most difficult. When your child begins the tantrum, if you are like most adults, your own stress level will immediately rise. You may lose focus, your body will become tense, your breathing might speed up, your blood pressure might increase. These physical symptoms will make it difficult for you to think clearly and follow through with your chosen strategies. By keeping yourself calm, you will at least not add fuel to the fire. Spend some time thinking about how you can remain calm when the storm hits.
If you raise your voice, argue, threaten or otherwise match your child’s behavior, your child will have the upper hand. Not only will it make your job more difficult but you will inadvertently reinforce the tantrum behavior with your escalated attention.
You may not need to act immediately. If your child is not in danger or if she is not causing a major public disruption, take a few moments to collect yourself, calm down, and decide what to do. After all, you are the adult and smarter than your kid. Some parents do the old standard counting to ten while they slow down their breathing, relax their body and calm their mind.
If your child is not in all-out mode but merely starting the engine, you might try to reverse the process by trying to connect and reassure him. For some parents it helps to stop what they are doing (if possible) and make eye contact at the child’s level. When you have contact, speak in a soft and gentle voice. You may want to say something like, "It looks like you are starting to get excited. Let’s see if you can remember how to calm yourself down." You, of course would use your own words. This assumes that prior to this, you have taught your child how to do this and have had a lot of practice sessions when he was in a good mood. If you can get some good results, then you can spend time "catching him being good."
With small children many parents find that distraction can often help. You know what interests your child and can use these interests when necessary to break the tantrum chain. Since you now know most of the situations in which your child will have a tantrum (from your Tantrum Diary), plan ahead. When you know these situations are coming up, think about what distractions you can use if you should need them.
If used properly, Time Out can be an effective technique for managing a temper tantrum. Unfortunately, it is often used incorrectly so it has gotten a bad name. If you want to use Time Out at home, pick a place that is dull and boring but not scary: laundry rooms, spare bedrooms, whatever you have available — but definitely not the child’s bedroom or a playroom. Children are different in what they find dull and boring so you may have to experiment a bit.
When the child is in a good mood so that you can talk about her behavior, gently explain that from now on when she loses control, you are going to help her calm down by letting her spend some time in the Time Out Room. Show her the room and tell her that if she can stay in there you won’t close the door. But, if she attempts to come out of the room then you will have to keep the door shut. Then explain that how long she stays in there will depend on her.
Tell her when she quiets down, you will set the timer and if she can remain quiet until the timer goes off she can come out. What she won’t know is that you will set the timer for as short a period as you can — like less than a minute. You are doing this because you are helping her to be successful. When she comes out you want to reward her for her "being quiet" behavior. Being quiet in Time Out means she can’t talk to you but she can talk to herself if that helps to quiet her down. If the child is older, you may let her write in her diary about what is happening to her and what she can do to help herself.
One of the reasons Time Out doesn’t work well is that a busy parent ignores her child when he is behaving well. Remember, that some children don’t know how to tell you appropriately they want your attention. They know they can get it by having a tantrum. Because of this you want to continually give your child attention when he doesn’t expect it. The more attention your child gets for behaving well, the better Time Out will work when needed. Time Out is really shorthand for Time Out From Positive Reinforcement. In other words, Time Out is designed to remove the child from attention when he is behaving poorly.
If you are in a public place when your child decides to go into her routine, have your Time Out plan already in place. Most parents immediately leave the store and take their child to the car. When you are in the car, tell her that when she calms down you can set the timer so that both of you can go back into the store. As always when you use the timer, make sure the time is short enough for your child to succeed. You tell her that if she decides not to calm down, then you will be going home immediately.
While you are in the car with her, completely ignore her after you have given her the instructions. When she is calm, tell her you are going to set the timer so that both of you can go back into the store. She will be in the back of the car and you will be in the front. Ignoring your child means you don’t look at her, you don’t make any sounds, you don’t touch — basically you are invisible. As you can tell this whole process can be very inconvenient for you so you. Therefore, you will need to always assume a tantrum will take place so that you can be prepared. Make sure your shopping is set up in a way so that using your plan is possible.
Some parents have used the timer in a dual role. When the child goes into Time Out, they set the timer and if the child can calm down before the timer goes off, then it is reset again for calm behavior. The first setting is long enough for the child to succeed in calming down and the second setting is short enough for the child to succeed by staying calm.
As we mentioned last week, small children can be quite humorous when they are engaging in Attention Getting Behaviors. If you think this is what is going on, ignoring your child is your best response. In case you missed the link to last week’s video of a small child doing his tantrum thing in order to get parental attention. You can see it here.
Holding a child who is out of control is a very controversial technique. Many people have used this to excess. There are many good reasons not to do this. In 2000, there was a tragic case in Colorado where adults attempted to deal with an out of control child by using a "holding" technique. The child died and the four were charged with the child’s death. Most mental health professionals find these "holding techniques" to be dangerous and not helpful. The technique is a part of something called Attachment Therapy. If you are interested in reading articles on the dangers of Attachment Therapy you can check out this link.
With this said, holding a child is best done with young children and its purpose is make the child feel safe and loved. The traditional "holding" techniques do just the opposite — they make the child feel more frightened and insecure. You want to hold your out-of-control child so that he no longer feels afraid and unsafe. While you are holding the child talk softly and reassure him that he can calm himself down. You can restore his confidence in himself by telling him you love him and always be there for him. If you try holding your tantruming child, then continue doing it only if your child responds well. Otherwise do something else instead.
After the Tantrum Has Finished
Some parents like to talk with their child after the child has calmed down. If your child is capable of talking about his feelings, have him do so. You might want to help him come up with a mutual solution for the next time this might happen. Reassure your child there is a better way to get what he wants. You can then take time to teach your child better behaviors for dealing with feelings such as anger or frustration.
When to Get Help
The first clue that you might need to seek professional help is when you notice that in spite of all the new approaches you are using, the tantrums are increasing in frequency or intensity. Contact a psychologist who has a long history in helping parents dealing with behavior problems. At the same time, have your pediatrician give your child a thorough checkup to make sure there are no physical conditions contributing to the tantrums.
Not just any psychologist will do. The psychologist must be trained, if not certified, in Behavior Analysis. Mental health diagnoses are not particularly effective accept in extreme cases such as autism. Even then you will want a Behavior Analyst to help you deal with the behavior.
Behavior Analysis is a relatively new field. The most likely licensed candidates are psychologists, social workers, and school psychologists. Some states are now beginning to honor licensed Behavior Analysts. If you are interested in this new field you can find out more information at the Behavior Analyst Certification Board web site.
Some Things Not to do
- Never, under any circumstances, give in to a tantrum. Giving in will only reward the tantrum and your child will continue to have them and probably have them more often. Giving in does not mean giving ultimatums by drawing a line in the sand. It means giving your child choices and then spelling out the consequences for each choice.
- Never punish the child for having the tantrum. Time Out is not punishment.
- Don't reward your child immediately after she calms down. This is because in order to calm down, she has to have the temper tantrum first. You will be rewarding the pair of behaviors: having a tantrum and then calming down. Reward your child for being calm for a short period of time after the tantrum stops. This is exactly what you will be rewarding your child for when she is not having a tantrum.
- Watch out for grudges. If you are the kind of person who carries a grudge, don’t let your grudge interfere with your relationship to your child. This may be hard but it is vital to successfully carrying out your plan.
Agassi, M. (2000). Hands are not for hitting. (Ages 4-7) Minneapolis: Free Spirit.
Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child. New York: Harper Collins.
MacKenzie, R. (2001). Setting limits with your strongwilled child. New York: Prima.
Nelson, J. (1999). Positive time-out and over 50 ways to avoid power struggles in the home and the classroom. New York: Prima.
Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies
National Association of School Psychologists