Mom needs help curbing tantrums

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 28, 2012 06:00 AM

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Can you say that a child is just having tantrums when at several times of the day he throws a fit? My son, 3 years of age [will] shout right away and cry every time we tell him that movie time is over or if we do not allow him to do what he wants. He would then start throwing things, shout loud and when I tell him to pick up what he threw he would not follow me. He seems to be so hard-headed lately and I feel that I am having a hard time controlling his acts and disciplining him. I try to talk him out, make him understand but it seems that he does not understand and keeps on shouting. I also tried distracting him but it does not seem to work that much. It happens several times daily and it is so frustrating. i hope you could give me an advice on this. thanks.


From: Young Mom, Philippines

Dear Young Mom,

There are lots of reason why a child this age might have tantrums. Here are just a few:
* he can't make himself understood; perhaps his verbal skills aren't good enough yet.
* he can't understand you; perhaps he can't hear you well enough.
* he isn't sure about consequences; perhaps you are inconsistent in setting limits and/or following through with consequences.

As you can see, there can be different problems, but they mostly boil down to frustration. Kids have different thresholds, just like adults. Once that frustration level is reached, and you react out of your own frustration, the two of you get into a vicious cycle that's hard to get out of and you end up feeding off each other in negative ways.

I think what's tripping you up is that you've forgotten that your job as a parent is to figure out where your child is developmentally and then feed into his or her strengths. This takes consistency as well as an understanding of where, in fact, a child is at any point in development. Sound hard? It gets harder. At any moment, the typical child moves back and forth between the stage he's coming from, the stage he's smack in the middle of, and the stage he's moving into. Sadly, our kids don't wear neon signs that say, "Hey mom, I'm regressing."

For instance, developmentally, 3-year-olds have a very muddy concept of time. Telling him to turn off the TV/video now, doesn't compute. Here's one way to help him: When you turn it on, tell him, "You can watch one program. When it's over, it will be bath time." Use something concrete in the program that he will recognize as the "five minutes more" time. He won't understand "five minutes," but he will get that it's almost time to end. Do it again at two minutes. The idea is to give him time to prepare so it doesn't feel -- to him -- like your request is out of the blue. And here's what's critical: when it ends and you turn it off and he throws a tantrum, don't relent. Children feel safer and respond better when they know what to expect. Let's say that on Tuesday, you say, "OK, one more program," and you're mellow about it. Wed, you say, "No way, we're done," and you're angry. On Thursday, he's totally confused. He doesn't know what to expect. He's gonna have a whopper of a tantrum.

Another good strategy is to try what Harvey Karp calls the "caveman" approach. Anticipate what is likely to frustrate him and head it off at the pass by labeling the feeling -- "I can see you're getting frustrated." Showing empathy by commiserating: "You want the truck NOW!" Once you acknowledge his feeling and he knows he's been heard, he's more likely to tolerate the distraction you now offer: "Let's play with this truck until John is finished playing." Caveat: This doesn't work once the tantrum is full-blown. When he's in the middle of a tantrum, a child can't hear you.

I've been told that "Mini-magic" is the single most helpful column I ever wrote. It's filled with helpful strategies. I hope something works for you.

Readers, can you help her out? What works for you?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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7 comments so far...
  1. One scenario you did not mention is that the child may have a learning disability that has not yet been identified. I only have 2 children and my daughter always seemed more "difficult" than my son even though I think I tried most, if not all, of the techniques you recommend above. Well, low and behold, at age 12 she was diagnosed with NVLD - non-verbal learning disorder.
    If you are a parent and are having issues with discipline I strongly recommend you discuss your concerns with other parents (friends, family members), pre-school teachers and, if you cannot get on top of the problem - with a professional. There could be more going on than just your parenting skills.
    Children with any "D's" such as ADD/ADHD, NVLD, Asperger's, Autism, Dyslexia and other learning issues can have a high level of emotional frustration and a low tolerance for a lot of situations. I wish I had understood all of this when my daughter was much younger. I would have adjusted my parenting accordingly and we would have avoided a lot of heartache that we are dealing with now.
    I'm just saying to be vigilant and seek help from a professional if you feel you ARE being consistent and practicing good parenting and still not making any progress.

    Posted by Kage February 28, 12 10:05 PM
  1. When a child throws a temper tantrum in public, adults often over react because they are embarrassed by their child's behavior. This increases the tension of the situation, often putting the child in the role of "entertainer" and the parent as the "bad guy." To reduce the chances of this happening, children need to know the rules for the situation they are in. BEFORE entering a store/movie/park etc it helps to review the rules. Is this a place where we walk or run ? Is this a place for indoor or outdoor voices ? How many fingers can we touch with ? What are the safety rules - ie, what do you do if you get lost ? etc.

    Are there rules for the adult ? Sure. We will be clear and respectful with our words to them and directions to them. We will praise good efforts on their part and be kind with OUR words (and consistent). We will acknowledge if they are over tired, sick, or simply bored and try to help them to make the best of the situation. We will remember that they are very young children.

    The best rule, next to the last above is very easy to teach and will save you hundreds of hours of discussions/arguing with your toddler and pre-k kid.
    It addresses the issue of grabbing things in a store BEFORE it happens. I have successfully used it for day care classes and my own children for decades. Gently, firmly and consistently, show your child how to touch with ONE finger. (Personally, I kiss the fingertip in the beginning, so that the child feels this is a loving exercise, not a restricting one.) Supermarkets are one finger touching until a child is old enough to help. Toy stores are 5 finger touching and Hardware stores ? Zero fingers. Once they learn it, children like making the zero with their fingers!

    Then if a quick, eyeball to eyeball correction doesn't work in a store, or any other public place, I remove the child from the situation. He/she may have his/her temper tantrum for as long as they need to, OUTSIDE. I has never taken me more than 3 times for a child to know I mean it. But this isn't because I am embarrassed; its because it is rude to disturb other people eating/reading/shopping etc. And, as I always tell them, It doesn't matter what other people do, WE are ladies and gentlemen.

    Once outside, as long as the child is safe, I can patiently wait until they are able to pull themselves together. I make empathetic comments, quietly, and if a child is unable to calm his/her self I ask if they want help to do so.What I do NOT do is worry about what other people think of how I handle the situation or my child.

    It doesn't matter what other people think. Really. First of all, EVERY parent has had a child misbehave, at least once, in public. And second of all, we often misread other people's faces and assume they are being critical vs concerned, overtired, or not thinking about you at all. And third, if they haven't had a child or worked with children, they have no business criticizing you. But the best reason to not care about what other people think, is that it helps YOU remain focused on the dynamics between you are your child. Who cares if other people will watch ? Children know when you are uncomfortable in a situation, and sometimes they "play" you. But they only have that power if you give it to them. If you review the rules before going into situations, if you stay calm and have faith in yourself and love for your child, temper tantrums will be brief because the child knows they are not going to "win."

    Finally, please do not make suggestions to parents with a child in the throws of a temper tantrum. After it is over you may want to make a supportive, empathetic comment, or even pitch in to help clean up a mess if something has been thrown. If you don't want to get directly involved, it is very kind to let the clean-up staff to know the location of the spill or breakage. Sometimes just a compassionate smile to the parent can make a positive difference.

    Posted by Margaret Mariam Rosenthal February 29, 12 09:19 AM
  1. Spank him. Worked for generations.

    Posted by ME February 29, 12 12:22 PM
  1. Kage, I was going to say that yesterday but I didn't want to sound like I was jumping to conclusions as we had nothing else to go by. When my boy was 2 (he is now 5) he had trouble verbalizing frustrations and other feelings or desires. He had bad tantrums. Then in a split second he was fine like nothing ever happened. Just like that. He was and still is (but less so now) strong-willed, stubborn (hardheaded as LW states). Anyway, I took him to be evaluated and he was found to have fallen ever so slightly into the spectrum of ASD but not really......He was diagnosed with PDD_NOS.. He is so very mild that it can easily go undetected (which makes me re-think his diagnosis). Anyway, I am sure this over the top and this is probably not the case. But it can also be typical of spectrum disorders.

    Posted by Jd February 29, 12 12:39 PM
  1. Spank him?

    My parents spanked me, and I so resented it that I left home at 17 and never saw them again. It turned out I had a severe case of ADHD, a mild case of Aspergers and a mild neuroauditory problem understanding speech. I put myself through 3 years of music school, and when I was 40 got a cum laude degree from the Harvard Extension School.

    Posted by WeirdlyWired. February 29, 12 08:48 PM
  1. Spanking has worked for generations? Are you willing to back that up with evidence (anecdotal doesn't count)? Are you trying to tell us that when a kid tantrums and then gets spanked, they never have a tantrum again? I'd love to know what your definition of "worked" is, ME. Having a child fear being hit is a sad way to instill behavior expectations and on a 3 year old, who's just developing control of their emotions, it is downright cruel. Spanking is the lazy person's way of dealing with their child. It doesn't address any actual issues and teaches no lessons. Children have learned from actual dialogue and non-violent consequences for generations. Why batter your child to get a desired result when you can achieve it without hitting?

    Posted by Linney March 1, 12 12:20 PM
  1. Thank you Linney. Very well said.

    Posted by rachel March 7, 12 04:49 AM
 
7 comments so far...
  1. One scenario you did not mention is that the child may have a learning disability that has not yet been identified. I only have 2 children and my daughter always seemed more "difficult" than my son even though I think I tried most, if not all, of the techniques you recommend above. Well, low and behold, at age 12 she was diagnosed with NVLD - non-verbal learning disorder.
    If you are a parent and are having issues with discipline I strongly recommend you discuss your concerns with other parents (friends, family members), pre-school teachers and, if you cannot get on top of the problem - with a professional. There could be more going on than just your parenting skills.
    Children with any "D's" such as ADD/ADHD, NVLD, Asperger's, Autism, Dyslexia and other learning issues can have a high level of emotional frustration and a low tolerance for a lot of situations. I wish I had understood all of this when my daughter was much younger. I would have adjusted my parenting accordingly and we would have avoided a lot of heartache that we are dealing with now.
    I'm just saying to be vigilant and seek help from a professional if you feel you ARE being consistent and practicing good parenting and still not making any progress.

    Posted by Kage February 28, 12 10:05 PM
  1. When a child throws a temper tantrum in public, adults often over react because they are embarrassed by their child's behavior. This increases the tension of the situation, often putting the child in the role of "entertainer" and the parent as the "bad guy." To reduce the chances of this happening, children need to know the rules for the situation they are in. BEFORE entering a store/movie/park etc it helps to review the rules. Is this a place where we walk or run ? Is this a place for indoor or outdoor voices ? How many fingers can we touch with ? What are the safety rules - ie, what do you do if you get lost ? etc.

    Are there rules for the adult ? Sure. We will be clear and respectful with our words to them and directions to them. We will praise good efforts on their part and be kind with OUR words (and consistent). We will acknowledge if they are over tired, sick, or simply bored and try to help them to make the best of the situation. We will remember that they are very young children.

    The best rule, next to the last above is very easy to teach and will save you hundreds of hours of discussions/arguing with your toddler and pre-k kid.
    It addresses the issue of grabbing things in a store BEFORE it happens. I have successfully used it for day care classes and my own children for decades. Gently, firmly and consistently, show your child how to touch with ONE finger. (Personally, I kiss the fingertip in the beginning, so that the child feels this is a loving exercise, not a restricting one.) Supermarkets are one finger touching until a child is old enough to help. Toy stores are 5 finger touching and Hardware stores ? Zero fingers. Once they learn it, children like making the zero with their fingers!

    Then if a quick, eyeball to eyeball correction doesn't work in a store, or any other public place, I remove the child from the situation. He/she may have his/her temper tantrum for as long as they need to, OUTSIDE. I has never taken me more than 3 times for a child to know I mean it. But this isn't because I am embarrassed; its because it is rude to disturb other people eating/reading/shopping etc. And, as I always tell them, It doesn't matter what other people do, WE are ladies and gentlemen.

    Once outside, as long as the child is safe, I can patiently wait until they are able to pull themselves together. I make empathetic comments, quietly, and if a child is unable to calm his/her self I ask if they want help to do so.What I do NOT do is worry about what other people think of how I handle the situation or my child.

    It doesn't matter what other people think. Really. First of all, EVERY parent has had a child misbehave, at least once, in public. And second of all, we often misread other people's faces and assume they are being critical vs concerned, overtired, or not thinking about you at all. And third, if they haven't had a child or worked with children, they have no business criticizing you. But the best reason to not care about what other people think, is that it helps YOU remain focused on the dynamics between you are your child. Who cares if other people will watch ? Children know when you are uncomfortable in a situation, and sometimes they "play" you. But they only have that power if you give it to them. If you review the rules before going into situations, if you stay calm and have faith in yourself and love for your child, temper tantrums will be brief because the child knows they are not going to "win."

    Finally, please do not make suggestions to parents with a child in the throws of a temper tantrum. After it is over you may want to make a supportive, empathetic comment, or even pitch in to help clean up a mess if something has been thrown. If you don't want to get directly involved, it is very kind to let the clean-up staff to know the location of the spill or breakage. Sometimes just a compassionate smile to the parent can make a positive difference.

    Posted by Margaret Mariam Rosenthal February 29, 12 09:19 AM
  1. Spank him. Worked for generations.

    Posted by ME February 29, 12 12:22 PM
  1. Kage, I was going to say that yesterday but I didn't want to sound like I was jumping to conclusions as we had nothing else to go by. When my boy was 2 (he is now 5) he had trouble verbalizing frustrations and other feelings or desires. He had bad tantrums. Then in a split second he was fine like nothing ever happened. Just like that. He was and still is (but less so now) strong-willed, stubborn (hardheaded as LW states). Anyway, I took him to be evaluated and he was found to have fallen ever so slightly into the spectrum of ASD but not really......He was diagnosed with PDD_NOS.. He is so very mild that it can easily go undetected (which makes me re-think his diagnosis). Anyway, I am sure this over the top and this is probably not the case. But it can also be typical of spectrum disorders.

    Posted by Jd February 29, 12 12:39 PM
  1. Spank him?

    My parents spanked me, and I so resented it that I left home at 17 and never saw them again. It turned out I had a severe case of ADHD, a mild case of Aspergers and a mild neuroauditory problem understanding speech. I put myself through 3 years of music school, and when I was 40 got a cum laude degree from the Harvard Extension School.

    Posted by WeirdlyWired. February 29, 12 08:48 PM
  1. Spanking has worked for generations? Are you willing to back that up with evidence (anecdotal doesn't count)? Are you trying to tell us that when a kid tantrums and then gets spanked, they never have a tantrum again? I'd love to know what your definition of "worked" is, ME. Having a child fear being hit is a sad way to instill behavior expectations and on a 3 year old, who's just developing control of their emotions, it is downright cruel. Spanking is the lazy person's way of dealing with their child. It doesn't address any actual issues and teaches no lessons. Children have learned from actual dialogue and non-violent consequences for generations. Why batter your child to get a desired result when you can achieve it without hitting?

    Posted by Linney March 1, 12 12:20 PM
  1. Thank you Linney. Very well said.

    Posted by rachel March 7, 12 04:49 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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