Managing tantrums

Brenda Nixon, author of The Birth to Five Book, believes that kids whose tantrums are tolerated are at risk for developing emotional problems as adults. While some tantrums occur as a natural part of development (“the terrible twos”), others might reflect a clinical problem. Tantrums typically start between 1.5 and 2 years, and might be thought of as an immature way of expressing frustration. Although the behaviour is often functional, aimed at getting parents or teachers to do something or to stop doing something, tantrums may also be a means of testing parents’ limits. The frequency and severity of tantrums generally declines by three to four years of age as children’s problem-solving and verbal skills improve.

Parents’ reactions to tantrums teach chlidren about the acceptability of their behaviour. If your child has a tantrum to force you to do something (at the toy store, for example), giving in to the behaviour teaches them that it works. Rewarding a behaviour will increase its occurrence. Regardless of the function of the behaviour, in order to deal with tantrums, I think parents should first investigate the situations that trigger them. Tantrums are usually predictible, and knowing about triggers allows parents to plan ahead. My kids had trouble when they were tired or hungry, making visits to restaurants somewhat dicey! Once we began bringing snacks and colouring books to restaurants, the kids’ behaviour improved immediately. We learned to avoid tantrums by figuring our what the kids were trying to tell us. Even before we knew this, however, we had to work hard to let the kids know that their frustration was OK, but how it was expressed was not always appropriate. I learned to feel comfortable putting the boys in time-out, even in public places, when tantrums began to arise. “Use your words,” was a frequently-used phrase.

Even though punishment of inappropriate behaviour can reduce its occurrence, for lasting change to occur, parents need to help their kids learn some alternative behaviours. It’s important to make a conscious effort to praise your kids when they do well. Just like a time-out gives the message that some behaviour is unacceptable, kids need to know what their parents consider to be positive! I would add that this is especially true for “exceptions” to negative behaviour. If your child behaves appropriately in a situation that usually triggers a tantrum, talk about it.

Dr. G and I talked about tantrums a while back in an episode of The Family Anatomy Podcast. You can find Brenda Nixon on Twitter.

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