Understanding and Eliminating Tantrums

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 over time. 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 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?

Why your child is tantrumming is such an important question. Answering Why is the key to changing behavior.  Why? Behavior always has a purpose.  It is crucial to recognize 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 let’s face it, a ball coming from left field doesn’t throw itself. The same is true of behavior. The sooner you accept 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 educate yourself on 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, rather a spring board 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. 

 

Once you have these teaching skills under your belt, it is time to tackle the tantrumming behavior. By clicking on each reason tantrums occur, you will have the opportunity to read a scenario depicting a typical issue faced by parents on a daily basis, proactive strategies to use to avoid tantrums, and reactive strategies to use when a tantrum occurs.

 

If, after reading this article, you would like further support or direct training from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to help change your child’s tantrumming behavior, please contact ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, LLC.

 

Attention  

It’s Saturday and you have a fun day planned out.  Your kids don’t know it yet, but you are taking them to the park followed by the new ice cream shop in town.  After all, you have been so busy lately and feel like you want to spend some extra special time with them. Three-year old Sarah runs into your room and says, “Mommy, mommy! Do you love my picture?” You sort-of nod yes because, let’s be honest, this is the umpteenth picture you’ve seen and your trying to get out the door.  A few minutes later, Sarah comes back and says, “Mommy, I got myself dressed!” You look at her and give a weak smile because you debating whether or not you are going to let her wear the tutu out of the house. You give some sort of neutral grunt and she walks away seeming appeased.  A third time, she walks into your room carrying a box of crayons and some paper.  You think to yourself, another picture? She walks right in front of you and lingers for a minute before walking over to the nearest wall and promptly drawing a deep purple colored line from as high as she can reach all the way down to the floor. She turns around and looks you straight in the eye. You are shocked! She knows better than to color on the walls. You immediately drop what you are doing and reprimand her for her terrible behavior, which seems to steam roll.  Your glaring face and stern voice seems to fuel her behavior. She starts to swipe at anything she can find. While you block her, she starts to hit you and grab at your earrings. You finally wrestle her into her room, shut the door, and take a deep breath. While she screams from her room, you realize your fun day is just not going to happen. 

 

Some kids love attention.  In an ideal situation, this attention comes in the form of hugs, talking, playing a game together, smiles, etc.  Let’s call this positive attention.  When life gets busy, positive attention may be one of the first things to go.  This positive attention is replaced with a negative form of attention, such as, stern looks, reprimands, pointing fingers, huffing/groaning, etc.  Some parents may be surprised to find out their children are tantrumming just to get their attention.

 

This is probably the one most difficult things for parents to identify.  These kids may be referred to as defiant or strong willed because they look right into your eyes just before pushing the chair over or screaming at the top of their lungs.  As you recount your tale to a friend, you say, “I swear she does it just to get a rise out of me.”  If this sounds all too familiar, you may be looking at attention seeking behavior.  It is important to recognize some kid need more attention than others, and they are willing to take low quality ( or negative) attention over no/minimal attention.

 

Strategy

If you believe your child is tantrumming to get your attention, try these strategies to help eliminate attention seeking tantrumming behavior, while improving appropriate attention seeking skills.

 

Proactive (before the tantrum)

  • Teach- Be intentional with your child.  Sit down with him and teach him how to ask for your attention.  Include different responses for him to use, such as saying, “Excuse me”, “Will you play with me,” tapping you on the shoulder, etc.

  • Model- Show your child what it looks like to request someone’ s attention.  Remember, little eyes and ears are always about.

  • Practice- This is key.  To help your child be successful with the skills you just taught, you NEED to have him practice. Role playing is a great way for you to give him immediate feedback on how he is doing.  This also gives you a chance to see if your teaching was effective. 

  • Reinforce- This is the most important step of getting any behavior going, especially a new one.  This is where your hard work as teacher pays off.  Catch your child using the new skill naturally. Provide positive attention every time! You will be able to fade the level of positive attention over time but in the beginning, make sure the quality of attention is consistent and top notch.

  • Free attention- Be sure to give your child regular “doses” of attention.  When you do this, you are building up collateral for when you really need uninterrupted time.

 

Reactive (during the tantrum) 

 

  • Be aware- Pay special attention to your own behavior. How are you reacting? What are you saying? What is your facial expression? What are your hands doing? All these (and more) contribute to the level of attention you are providing to your child, in the midst of the tantrum. Stay calm, cool, and collected.

  • Turn away- When it is safe to do so, turn away from your child.  The tantrum behavior is not one of the skills you want to continue, so you need to show him/her that tantrumming no longer results in your attention.  Rather, give your attention to someone else in the room.  If no one is available, give your attention to an independent activity. Wait until your child either uses one of the skills you taught earlier or is quiet for a brief time (timing depends on the child’s age and developmental appropriateness).

 

***Note, in the beginning of this, your child will likely wonder why tantrumming is not working anymore.He may tantrum more intensely for a brief period of time.This is called an extinction burst.If this happens, you are most likely on the right track.If you feel uncomfortable with the level of intensity or observe any new behaviors that might be dangerous to your child, other people or animals, or the environment, but still want to eliminate the tantrums, it may be time to contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to assist you.***

 

  • Be a light switch- When your child is calm, turn the attention back.  If he immediately goes back to tantrumming, don’t despair. Turn the attention off again.  Cycle through this on/off attention switch until your child learns how to appropriately get your attention.  The more contrast there is between the attention on and attention off conditions, the quicker he will grasp the concept.

 

If, after reading this article, you would like further support or direct training from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to help change your child’s tantrumming behavior, please contact ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, LLC.

 

Escape or Avoidance

Homework time again. Your heart rate increases just a little bit as look over Danny’s 2nd grade homework list, hoping beyond hope his teacher didn’t assign 3-digit addition, with carrying. Your eyes settle on 12, brightly colored math problems, this time with subtraction interspersed.  Dread sets in.  You take a deep breath and put a smile on your face.  “Danny,” you call, “It’s time to sit down at the table to get your homework done.”  This is where the rest of your night begins. Danny trudges into the room and immediately starts telling you how he doesn’t like his homework and he is sure he won’t have to ever use math in his whole life.  Knowing full well he will, you feel the parental duty to talk through a few examples of how math will be useful in the future.  After 15 minutes and many eye rolls, the math problems are still staring you both in the face. You tell him a few times to pick up his pencil and start working, offering him his favorite snack, and being as nice as you can be.  Danny starts completing his work but you notice he is scratching the paper with his pencil and his brow is furrowed. You are walking the tight rope.  Your frustration gets the better of you, as Danny reverts back to “hating math” and feeling like it is “stupid.” Didn’t he listen to your examples? You conclude it’s time for some tough love.  After several rounds of escalating behavior on both your and Danny’s part, you have threatened to remove TV, dessert, and his weekend activity if he doesn’t get his math done in the 30 minutes, which will be difficult as Danny has now ripped his paper into several pieces and is shouting so loud, you are not even sure he can hear you. You feel deflated and defeated.

 

Homework. For many parents, this is where they see most escape behavior surface.  Why? Maybe there is a skill deficit in the subject the child is working on. Maybe handwriting is especially difficult for him. Either way, the pressure of deadlines for homework and getting decent grades, creates a pressure cooker in the home.

 

For younger kids, tantrums for escape may come right after you say, “Okay, time to clean up your toys.” This is probably not a skill deficit, yet your child screams, cries, shouts, or simply runs away.  Why? Simply put, because it works.  Screaming and crying typically feels bad to the parent or caregiver, so they drop the request to clean and simply pick up the toys by themselves later. 

 

Regardless of the reason, your child needs to learn more appropriate ways of getting relief from something they don’t like, instead of screaming, crying, hitting, etc. 

 

Strategy

If you believe your child is tantrumming to get out of doing something you have asked him or her to do, or is trying to gain relief from something bothering him or her, try these strategies to help eliminate escape tantrumming behavior, while improving appropriate skills.

 

 

Proactive (before the tantrum)

 

  • Teach- Be intentional with your child.  Sit down with him and teach him how to ask for help or a break.  Include different responses for him to use, such as saying, “I need help,” “This is so frustrating,” or “Can I have a break.” Sometimes, kids do not realize asking for a break is acceptable.  It is also important to help them cope when someone tells them no. You may need to teach other response, such as “If I can’t have a break now, when can I?”

  • Model- Show your child what it looks like to request help or a break.  This will happen during the natural course of the day. You may ask your child to help you pick up the toy room or fold laundry. Try to show them how to respond appropriately when help is not available.

  • Practice- Again, this is key.  To help your child be successful with the skills you just taught, you NEED to have him practice. Role play difficult scenarios with him/her.  Make fun and switch roles, you be the child and your child gets to be you, providing immediate feedback.  This gives you a chance to see if your teaching was effective or if you need to circle back around. 

  • Reinforce- This is the most important step of getting any behavior going, especially a new one.  This is where your hard work as teacher pays off.  Catch your child using the new skill naturally. Provide relief in the form of a short break from the task or provide an appropriate level of help. Remember, each skill has a purpose. You need to make sure asking for a break or help frequently results in receiving a break or help, in order for it to become and stay purposeful.

  • Modify- When appropriate, break up the task into smaller steps. Allow for breaks in between the steps, especially when your child has worked extra hard. Consider using a visual schedule with built in breaks. Also, consider writing down the responses you taught previously and posting in plain sight of your child’s work space.  In the event of a tantrum, you can subtly prompt him by pointing to an appropriate response.

 

Reactive (during the tantrum)

 

  • Be aware- Pay special attention to your own behavior. How are you reacting? What are you saying? What is your facial expression? What are your hands doing? All these (and more) contribute to the level of attention you are providing to your child, in the midst of the tantrum. Stay calm, cool, and collected.

  • Follow through- Be consistent and follow through. If your child begins to tantrum during homework, wait him out. Throwing up your hands in frustration and walking away shows your child his tantrum is an effective way to get out of doing his homework. 

  • Be a Detective- Make note of how the tantrum progresses.  Try to catch the tantrum before it really goes off the rails.  Does your child start to whine or put his head down before he really gets going? If you see an indicator of the tantrum, point to one of the prompts you posted earlier.  If he uses it, praise him and provide help or relief. 

 

***Note, in the beginning of this, your child will likely wonder why tantrumming is not working anymore.He may tantrum more intensely for a brief period of time.This is called an extinction burst.If this happens, you are most likely on the right track.If you feel uncomfortable with the level of intensity or observe any new behaviors that might be dangerous to your child, other people or animals, or the environment, but still want to eliminate the tantrums, it may be time to contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to assist you.***

 

 

If, after reading this article, you would like further support or direct training from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to help change your child’s tantrumming behavior, please contact ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, LLC.

 

Get What They Want

It is 20 minutes before dinner when little Kate walks up to you in the kitchen and says, “Mommy, can I please have a cookie?” You appreciate she used such a sweet tone and appropriate words, but you know full well if she eats a cookie before dinner, she is likely not going to eat what you have prepared.  You say, “Thanks for asking so nicely but no cookies before dinner.”  Kate follows up immediately, stating she is starving and wants the cookie now.   She even promises to eat all her dinner without complaining. Oh yea, and she will never ask for another cookie before dinner ever again.  After a few of these exchanges, you begin to feel exasperated and your tone is becoming increasingly harsh.  At this point, Kate’s eyes have welled up with tears, her hands are planted firmly on her hips, and she is gearing up for a fight.  You look at the clock and realize dinner is now 10 minutes behind because of this impending tantrum, not to mention the pasta over cooked and you forgot to put the bread in the oven. You find yourself at the crossroads between just giving her the cookie so the whole night is not derailed or standing your ground and withholding the cookie, which will undoubtedly go on for hours. 

 

What does Kate want? She wants a cookie.  There are appropriate times for Kate to have a cookie, and then there are inappropriate times. This is an example of an inappropriate time for Kate to have a cookie. She knows this, but she also knows that if she acts in a certain way she may end up getting a cookie anyway. 

 

Strategy

If you believe your child is tantrumming to get something they want, try these strategies to help eliminate access to preferred items tantrumming behavior, while improving appropriate skills.

 

Proactive (before the tantrum) 

 

  • Schedules- If your child has a particular item he likes to have, pre-teach appropriate times to request the item.  Involve your child in laying down appropriate times and inappropriate times to request his favorite items.   

  • Give access- When appropriate, allow your child opportunities to get the things he really wants.  This does not mean give it freely. It should be given as a result of something good he has done (or something bad he has not done).  Don’t fall into the trap of setting the bar too high.  It is perfectly acceptable to offer the items for small, easy behaviors or larger amounts of the item for more difficult behaviors.  The key here is to allow your child to “work” for the item, so he knows how to get it and how not to get it.

  • Teach- Select the appropriate skill to teach here. If the item is something another child has (which happens all the time), your child will benefit from learning how to share.  This is a skill worth teaching, rather than just letting it develop on its own if tantrumming behavior is already occurring. Teach phrases you child can use with his peers, such as, “Can I have a turn,” “When can I have a turn,” and “Can you share with me?” Alternatively, if your child wants something they can’t have at that moment, teach follow up questions like, “Why can’t I have the cookie?” and “When can I have the cookie?” 

  • Model- Show your child what it looks like to share.  This will happen during the natural course of the day. Offer to share your snack with them. Share a toy while playing with them. Show them how to respond appropriately when the other person does not want to share or if an item is simply unavailable.

  • Practice- This is key.  To help your child be successful with the skills you just taught, you NEED to have him practice. Role playing is a great way for you to give him immediate feedback on how he is doing.  This also gives you a chance to see if your teaching was effective. To practice sharing, grab a few toys and engage your child in play. Take turns being the child who has the toys and the child who wants the toy. Alternatively, roleplay asking for a preferred item at the right time and the wrong. Allow your child many chances to use her new skills.

  • Reinforce- This is the most important step of getting any behavior going, especially a new one.  This is where your hard work as teacher pays off.  Catch your child using the new skill naturally. Provide access to the requested item as often as is appropriate. Remember, each skill has a purpose. You need to make sure asking for a asking for the item stays purposeful so your child doesn’t need to tantrum for the item.

 

Reactive (during the tantrum)

 

  • Be aware- Pay special attention to your own behavior. How are you reacting? What are you saying? What is your facial expression? What are your hands doing? All these (and more) contribute to the level of attention you are providing to your child, in the midst of the tantrum. Stay calm, cool, and collected.

  • Offer choices- If your child is requesting the item during an inappropriate time, offer him other choices, instead of the item.  For example, Kate’s mother could have offered a yogurt or a piece of fruit, rather than the cookie.  Of course, it is the child’s choice to take one of the options or not. By giving a choice, you have addressed the concern and can consider the conversation over. 

  • Don’t negotiate- Once a choice is offered, do not negotiate with your child.  If it is safe to do so, turn away from your child once you have given the choice.  This shows your child the issue has been taken care of and you are no longer available to talk about it. In the beginning, your child may tantrum and argue for the item.  Do not engage him in this.  If your child takes one of the items offered or chooses neither, it is appropriate to praise him for his good behavior. 

 

***Note, in the beginning of this, your child will likely wonder why tantrumming is not working anymore.He may tantrum more intensely for a brief period of time.This is called an extinction burst.If this happens, you are most likely on the right track.If you feel uncomfortable with the level of intensity or observe any new behaviors that might be dangerous to your child, other people or animals, or the environment, but still want to eliminate the tantrums, it may be time to contact a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to assist you.***

 

If, after reading this article, you would like further support or direct training from a Board Certified Behavior Analyst to help change your child’s tantrumming behavior, please contact ChildFirst Behavior Therapy, LLC.

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