Tantrums - Breaking the Cycle

Tantrums don't suddenly appear. They are learned. Controlling or eliminating tantrums isn't complicated, but it is hard work. It will be easier if you keep one simple premise in mind: Tantrums aren't personal.

Toddlers and pre-school children don't throw tantrums because they want to be naughty. They don't scream and yell because they want to hurt you. Children throw tantrums because they work. It is your job to make tantrums fail.

"Can I have a lollipop?"

This sentence, when uttered in a crowded supermarket, has the power to invoke a racing heart and sweating palms in many parents.

The answer is no. The child raises her voice. The answer is still no. The child drops to the floor. The answer turns into a discussion and the child's voice increases in volume. The tears flow, the shrieks begin and, after a few parental self-conscious glances at near by shoppers ? the answer becomes yes.

Sound familiar?

What makes the child in the next aisle accept 'no' with a shrug of the shoulders or a nod? Why is your child the one who throws tantrums?

There is no easy answer to this question, but there are some patterns of thinking and practical methods that you can use to break the cycle.

It is a simple, yet powerful fact. A child's behavior can be modified. Rewarding a behavior will increase the occurrence of that behavior. Ignoring it will decrease, and often eliminate the behavior.

A child who throws tantrums receives this message: If I yell loud enough and long enough, I'll get what I want.

The message you want them to receive is: It doesn't matter how long or hard I yell, I'm not going to get what I want.

The tantrums may be just developing. They may have been an unhappy part of family life for months or even years. Whatever the situation, if they're still happening, they're working.

So, how do you start?

* Commit yourself. When you decide to eliminate tantrums from your life, you are not fighting your child. You are in a battle for the good of your child. You will create a more peaceful home environment and closer relationships within your family. You will also teach your child self-discipline. This is a vital skill when dealing with society. Teachers, bosses and most friends will not crumble under the weight of your child's demands.

Tantrums won't disappear immediately. If your child is just beginning to learn the components of a truly inspired tantrum, you may not have far to go. A few unwavering sessions may be all that is needed. If, however, your child has been honing his tantrum technique for months or even years, success may take a little longer. Even so, with consistency and perseverance, it will work.

* Identify the triggers. When do most tantrums occur? Are they sparked by bedtime? Meal times? When shopping? While you are on the phone? Make a list and be aware. Find ways to help your child succeed. If eating dinner is a problem, give her tiny portions. If too much TV is a problem, offer more interesting alternatives.

* Clarify the rules to yourself. Before you enter a tantrum-triggering zone, make sure that your rules are reasonable and consistent. There are no compromises at this stage. If your child refuses to eat dinner but insists on dessert, choose one phrase. "Dinner, then dessert." This way, when the begging starts or questions are fired at you, you can respond with a simple, repetitive, sanity-saving comment. No discussion is necessary.

* Clarify the rules to your child. Before entering a situation that is likely to provoke a tantrum, calmly and firmly explain what is expected of your child. "You may watch this program. When it is over, the TV is turned off. Do you agree?" If a tantrum occurs when the TV is turned off after the program, your phrase can be, "We agreed, no more TV today."

* Stay Calm. Easier said than done. Try to tune out. Try to ignore the unwanted behavior by not responding or responding only with your practiced phrase. A child will eventually realize that she's getting nowhere. She'll turn up the heat. The cries may become screeches and dinner may be thrown across the room (you may want to remove her plate before she gets to this stage). That's OK. She's getting the message. If you do not react, she will realize. Her tantrum isn't working.

* Don't give up. This is imperative. If you usually give in after five minutes and this time, you held out for ten, next time you're in for a longer stint. In your child's mind, the tantrum still worked, she just had to work a little harder. So will you.

* Reward immediately. If you stick with it, eventually your child will see that the tantrums no longer have any effect. As soon as you see the tiniest improvement, offer a reward. This doesn't mean change your rules. If your child screams for only two minutes instead of three and then agrees to turn off the TV, don't reward her with more TV. You will be sending her a mixed message. Reward her with a story, a walk or a hug. "You cried much less today than you did last time. Good for you."

Taming tantrums is challenging and rewarding. Be gentle with yourself. There will be setbacks and days when things seem worse. It can be difficult but it's temporary. When your child's smile begins to shine through the haze of anger and frustration, you will agree. The long-term benefits are worth it.

Ann Harth © 2005

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