Dear Dr. Yael:
I am married and have a two and a half year old son. He is a wonderful child, but when he does not get his way, he often has a tantrum. Sometimes, I just give him what he wants because we are in public and his behavior is embarrassing. But I cannot always give in, especially when what he wants is dangerous or unhealthy. It is then that I do not know what to do.
I try to ignore his behavior, but he just gets louder and louder. Then I get very frustrated and, I am embarrassed to say, yell at him or give him a potsch. While I feel terrible afterwards and try to make it up to him, the situation has becomes a vicious cycle.
What can I do to stop my son’s tantrums? I don’t want to yell at him, but I don’t know what else to do.
A Frustrated Mother
Dear Frustrated Mother:
Tantrums are hard to deal with, but there are some true and tried techniques that can help lessen them.
It is important to first understand why your son is having tantrums. Often children act out because they are seeking attention, are tired, hungry or are uncomfortable with or about something. Children also tantrum because they are frustrated, generally due to not being able to get something they want, e.g. an object or a parent’s attention. Frustration is an inevitable part of children’s lives as they learn how people, objects and their own bodies work.
This type of behavior is very common in children ages 2-3 as they are acquiring language skills and generally understand more than they can verbally express. It is this inability to communicate their needs that causes the frustration, which may trigger a tantrum. As children acquire more language and better communication skills, their tantrums usually decrease. However, it is important to not make it seem as if they are getting what they want because of the tantrum, as that does nothing more than cause it to be habit-forming and more difficult to control.
The most effective way to deal with tantrums is to, whenever possible, avoid them in the first place. Here are some strategies that can help:
1) Distraction is a very effective technique when it comes to tantrums. Children have short attention spans and can be distracted fairly easily. Give your son a replacement item for whatever he wants or begin a new activity to replace one that does not meet your approval.
Changing the environment can also be helpful. Consider using an excited voice and saying, for example, “Let’s go for a walk!” Even if your child is still screaming, chances are good that he will stop when you get outside. You can even begin to walk outside alone, knowing that most children will want to follow their parent – even when they’re upset. If you are unable to go outside, go to a different room and use a distracting activity to divert your son’s attention.
2) Children often tantrum because they want attention. This is because they prefer negative attention to no attention at all. This includes a parent’s reaction to a tantrum. Many studies show that when a parent gives a child attention, including the negative kind, the child will increase the level of his or her current behavior.
It is important to reward your son when he behaves well. Any positive reinforcement for non-tantrum behavior sends your son the message that he will get attention when he does not throw a tantrum. This will increase his positive behavior.
3) It is important to give your son a feeling of control. Giving your son choices is a great way to help him feel autonomous while still doing what you want him to do. For example, instead of asking him what he wants to drink, ask him if he would like a drink of water or orange juice (or something else that you find acceptable). This way, you are giving him the freedom to choose without the opportunity to ask for something you will not allow. So instead of asking your son whether he wishes to take a bath, an offer he is likely to refuse, use choice questions such as, “Do you want to brush your teeth before your bath or after your bath?” By giving your son as many acceptable to you choices as possible, you will avoid having arguing over his decision.