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TOPIC TITLE: Breaking the Secret Code of Tantrums
Created On 7/23/13 7:27 PM
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7/23/13 7:27 PM
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(Originally appeared in May 2013 issue of Mind, Body & Soul)

By Dr. Sara Teichman

Tantrums, especially when they are thrown in public, are no fun. Even in private, they frustrate us and make us wonder what has happened to our typically loveable child. Interestingly, tantrums are often cited as the most challenging issue that parents face.

Common wisdom holds that if you ignore tantrums, they will go away. This is based on the behavioral principle of reinforcement and extinction, which claims that, that which is not reinforced will be extinguished. A common example of this principle in operation is when a teacher calls on the student who raises her hand, but never on the child who calls out. When this absence of reinforcement for negative behavior is maintained long enough, the child learns to stop the undesirable behavior.

While ignoring the episode is sound advice for some kinds of tantrums, it is actually inappropriate for another kind. Let me explain.

There are two kinds of tantrums: one is a deliberate decision on the part of the child to manipulate his parent; the other is when the child is so upset, he totally loses control over himself and is unable to manage his behavior and emotions. While ignoring the tantrum is an excellent strategy for the deliberate tantrum, it is inappropriate for the child who is out of control. Just as you would not ignore a child with a headache, you do not want to ignore a child who is experiencing emotional pain.

Let’s look at the first kind of tantrum. This is when your child decides to throw a fit in order to manipulate, intimidate, or embarrass you into giving her what she wants. Though your child may look like she is out of control, she is actually able to stop ‘on a dime’ as soon as she gets what she wants. This is the give-me-three-snacks-or-I won’t-go-to-school, or the buy-me-that-toy-right-now-or-you’ll-be-humiliated-in-public kind of tantrum. Because this behavior is a deliberate choice on your child’s part, it must end, and your child must learn another (healthier) bag of tricks.

However, the child throwing the tantrums will not be motivated to change her behavior on her own. Why should she, when she knows that by doing this, she will get her way? This is where there is a need for discipline, for firm boundaries and a clear discussion about what is, or is not, appropriate behavior. Non-negotiable rules like ‘one snack per day,’ or ‘only children who co-operate can come shopping with me’ are strategies to minimize this type of tantrum. Should your child spring a tantrum, consequences like having no snack or having to leave the store immediately should reinforce the idea that tantrums do not work with you anymore. Discipline as such works best when parents set up a consistent environment so that the child knows what to expect and there are no surprises. Then parents can gives choices, pick battles, and have realistic expectations of their children’s behavior.

The second kind of tantrum is totally different. This is where your child is so overwhelmed by his feelings, so upset, that he literally cannot control his emotions and has a meltdown. A typical example of this is when a toddler is allowed to get so hungry, he throws his food and refuses to eat. Or an older child may be so stressed out and overwhelmed by homework that he becomes hysterical and knocks his books and papers to the floor. These tantrums are not so much a discipline issue as a parent’s failure to be proactive.

The proactive parent knows his/her child’s triggers (homework, shopping excursions, etc.) and looks out for them — or better yet, avoids them altogether. Because tantrums are often the result of the child being hungry, tired, bored, frustrated, or over-stimulated, the proactive parent is on top of things and makes sure — to the greatest possible extent — that none of these events occur. In short, the best way to deal with this kind of tantrum is to prevent it from happening. And, conversely, the worst way to deal with it is to be “reactive,” which is usually the result of just not knowing what to do. Being reactive means yelling or threatening the child with a disproportionate consequence you’ll never keep (such as when a child calls his brother names while you’re on a trip, and won’t stop, so you threaten to exclude him from the family trip to his cousin’s chasunah in Connecticut).You are “reactive” – you’re just reacting without having really thought it through.

In the case of this type of tantrum (the result of the child being hungry, tired, bored, frustrated, or over-stimulated), the parent needs to be nurturing and supportive and help the child to calm down. Disciplining someone for something they cannot do (manage their emotions) is not effective or fair. Nor will ignoring be effective, because this type of tantrum is a result of pain, and until your child learns to manage emotional pain, no amount of discipline or ignoring will stop this raw explosion of feelings. Rather, you want to help the child calm down, initially by using a soothing voice or touch, so that your child can regain control of himself. If your child is doing something dangerous to himself or others, or destroying property, you may have to hold the child until he is ready to move on. Then, when the child has calmed down, you can talk to him about the source of his pain and some appropriate strategies for dealing with it.

Though tantrums are most often associated with children, the truth is that most of us have the occasional meltdown. By understanding the difference between the two types of tantrums, and by learning to prevent them by being proactive as opposed to reactive, we can learn to manage this ugly beast more effectively.

Dr. Sara Teichman is a psychotherapist in private practice and Clinical Director at Etta Israel Center, a center for youth with special needs. In addition, she is an experienced educator and currently is a faculty member at Ma’alot College- Los Angeles and UCLA- Extension. Dr. Teichman frequently lectures on issues such as parenting and child development. She also writes the advice column “Ask Dr. T” which appears in Binah magazine. She can be reached at sara.teichman@etta.org.

Edited: 7/24/13 at 5:29 PM by JewishPress

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