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  • Ashley Musial

How to Understand and Eliminate Tantrums, Part 1


Kids are wonderfully bright and capable of achieving new skills every day. As parents, we marvel at how they persist in acquiring new words, learn to read, and generally flourish in many varying situations. This same steadfastness applies to your child’s less appealing behavior, such as tantrumming.

Tantrumming is a skill that is shaped over time and can often get worse. It is something most parents will have to deal with at some point on their parenting journey, some more than others. You may be tempted to tell yourself that your child will grow out of tantrumming. However, tantrumming does not typically go away as the child gets older, rather it changes form (what it looks like), which can become more difficult as the child grows. This becomes most apparent in the classroom setting where expectations for “good” behavior are higher.

Tantrumming is not only unpleasant for you, but it is also a barrier for your child to learning new, more appropriate skills. Read on to find out what tantrums look like, why they happen, and how to minimize or eliminate them. With a deeper understanding of what is causing your child to tantrum and a few basic skills, you can equip yourself to better handle tantrums in the moment and how often they happen over time.


What is a Tantrum?

Most parents think of a tantrum as a single behavior. Tantrumming, however, is a collection of different responses that vary widely in form and duration. Form refers to what the tantrum looks like. This is where you paint a picture of the tantrum. Typical tantrums are described as crying, whining, kicking, flailing arms or legs, stomping feet, or other disruptive behavior, in order to get what the child wants. Duration is simply how long a tantrum may last, from beginning to end.

Tantrums always happen for a reason. It is really tempting to believe your child is acting out for no apparent reason. In a way, it allows you some reprieve from the mental and emotional repercussions the tantrum doles out. However, this is not the case. Tantrums, like ALL other behavior, always have a purpose.

Okay then, so why do children tantrum?


Why Do Children Tantrum?

Answering “why” is the key to changing behavior, because behavior always has a purpose. It is crucial to recognize that behavior never happens without a reason, even if it is not clear in the moment. Sometimes, you may describe behavior as coming out of left field, but even a ball coming from left field doesn’t throw itself. The same is true of behavior. The sooner you accept that behavior always has a purpose, the sooner you will be on your way to effectively changing it.

So, why do kids tantrum? Simply put, they want something. Interestingly, kids want the same general things as adults: attention from others, relief from aversive circumstances, and access to tangibles (food/candy, toys, services/activities, etc). In order to get rid of unwanted tantrumming behavior, always start with teaching the appropriate behavior you would rather see instead. This sounds easier in theory than in practice, so learn how to teach by reading on.


The Basics: Building Your Own Skills First

Before you can expect your child to make good choices, you have to teach them those choices first. Teaching is so much more than simply telling your child to do something and hoping for the best. Teaching involves:

  • Instruction- Tell your child what to do. Make it short and simple. This is not the time for a lecture, but rather a springboard for the rest of your teaching.

  • Modeling- Show your child what the skill looks like by doing it yourself for them.

  • Rehearsal (Practice)- Put your child’s imaginary play skills to work here. Roleplay the skill with your child, each of you taking turns acting out the skill being taught.

  • Feedback- Praise the skill as soon as possible after it happens. If it needs shaping, that’s okay too. Cycle back to instruction and repeat the steps until the skill is happening correctly. Remember, don’t expect perfection on the first try.

Now that you have some basic skills under your belt, it’s time to tackle the tantrumming behavior. In Part 2 of this post, you’ll learn three key things:

  • The most common reasons why children engage in tantrumming

  • The typical issues created by tantrums

  • Proactive strategies you can use to prevent or diminish tantrums.

In the meantime, if you would like further support or direct training from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to help change your child’s tantrumming behavior, please contact the team at ChildFirst Behavior Therapy.

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