Monday, July 30, 2012

Dealing with toddler tantrums

or eating nutella. either one. turns out, I don't take many pictures during tantrums.
The most valuable thing I’ve gotten from reading The Verbal Behavior Approach (a guide for teaching kids with autism that I read to find good toddler behavior strategies; read HERE in case you missed my first post on it) is that tantrums are a result of your child wanting something (attention, access to an item, an escape), but not knowing how to ask for it. On one hand, duh. But on the other hand, it is SO EASY in a low and embarrassing moment to think the tantrum is happening because the kid hates you, or because you’re a terrible mom/dad/teacher (or worse, they are a “bad child”). Often times, people see tantrums as something that merits discipline. And they are right if by “discipline,” they mean thoughtful teaching versus broad-spectrum punishing.  If a child needs information, you give the child information not {cringing} a spanking. Just like how I didn’t punish Hannah for not knowing how to bake a cake on the first try. Or like how I never punished my math students for not knowing how to balance an equation. You help/teach them. In the case of tantrum-throwing toddlers, you teach them how to ask for what they want. {hint: a five-minute time out or a {cringing big time} spanking, doesn’t teach a kid how to ask for what they want.}
Below are some situation-specific advice for preventing and/or dealing with tantrums.
Tantrums for things they can have: Count to Five.
If your child is having a tantrum because he want something he is allowed to have (his book that is out of reach, for example), don’t give it to the child while he is freaking out. That will just teach him that tantrum=results. First, tell him to be quiet (via sign language/words/shushing). Next, I usually then say, “you want the X?” (give them the words) or, “you are frustrated because you want X.” (name the emotion and the item.) Maggie usually shakes her head and says, “yeah!” (even though I suspect she doesn’t always know exactly what I said) but a younger toddler or a kid with language delays would probably want to punch you in the face if you did that. If a kid is freaking out because he doesn’t know a word and you throw tons more words at them? Not a good idea. So know your audience and what is developmentally appropriate for him/her (e.g. say “book” versus “you want your Elmo book?” or sometimes it is best to just say "shh" and do one thing at a time). Next, count to five. You don’t have to count out loud, but I’ve found it REALLY helpful. For one, Maggie is at that pre-counting stage where she listens extra close to numbers. Second, it is a distraction from the tantrum-causing item. Third, this is a great way to start implementing some patience-building practices. {You can also use this tactic in non-tantrum situations when you just need your child to wait (e.g., your child wants some milk but you have a pot full of boiling water you need to take care of first: say, I will be able to help you in about X seconds, and then start counting to X).} If your child is quiet the full five-second count, she may have the item. If she starts to tantrum before you get to five, just start over. This teaches the child that a tantrum won’t get them what they want, it will actually get them further from what they want; but quiet patience and communication will get them what they want. After five seconds of calm, give the book to the child. This is also a good time to reinforce the command (“book,” or “Elmo book” or “here is your Elmo book”). This strategy is actually a mini-time out, except you are actively teaching the child the whole time so this method doesn't have the same potential to back fire that a prolonged time out will have.
Tantrums for things they can’t have: Prevent/Ignore.
If your child is having a tantrum because he wants something he can’t have, prevention is your best bet (think: lower your demands/increase your rewards). Offer something else the child can have before his frustration elevates. Once the frustration has turned into a full-blown tantrum, do not offer alternatives. At this point, they aren’t alternatives, they are more like bribes (stop screaming and I’ll get you X, which will teach the kid tantrum=getting what I want). Once the tantrum has started, your best bet is to ignore the behavior. I like to say, ignore the behavior and not the child because it feels a little gentler. I like to ask myself, what would I be doing if she hadn't started screaming? Then I’ll do that. (in other words, I wouldn’t have been withholding love from my child.) Or if it is a smaller tantrum, I might stay close but look down at my hands until she stops. Remember, this is not the time for scolding your kid. It is tempting to lecture, but it means you are giving the child attention and thus reinforcement. And seriously, you don’t want a kid who seeks negative attention. That will just set them up for a lifetime of difficulties. A kid will learn to seek out negative attention if that is what he is best at getting. So give choices and positive attention when you can, and if that didn't work, ignore problem behaviors. E.g., if your child is trying to get your attention while you are on the phone and you stop your conversation to scold them, you are giving them exactly what they wanted: attention. Instead, try to obviate the problem behaviors (i.e., an ounce of prevention). You could give your kid something fun (and independent) to do before you make or answer a call; give positive reinforcement (thumbs up, back pats, smiles) for quiet, patient behavior; and if your kid does flip out while you’re on the phone? well, that sucks. The author stopped giving advice for the scenario after the first two ideas. Walk into another room? I don’t know. If I had all the answers, I wouldn't be reading all these books.
Tantrums to get out of stuff: Prevent/Enforce.
When your child throws a fit because she doesn't want to do something (here’s a recent example: clean up the milk she spilled on the floor), and you just say, “forget it! We are already late!” and do it yourself? You are teaching the kid that tantrums are a great way to get out of doing work. Usually, the kid is freaking out because there are too many demands on her at once (in this case: on top of getting ready for school, I asked her to clean a mess. in hindsight, that was a way-too-broad instruction for a two-year old). At times like this, it can help to break the job in to small requests (ask them to get a rag, or you get the rag and ask them to hold it. That small.) or teach your child how to ask for help. Sometimes you need to give a physical prompt (take their hand, put the rag in their hand, and place the rag over the spilled milk). {an aside: this advice reminds me of a part of Bringing Up Bebe (see the posts here and here), when the author is discussing “crazy Americans” and their parenting philosophies. Druckerman talks about a friend in NYC who is a big fan of Alfie Kohn and won’t use physical force (not just in the sense that force=spanking, but also force=picking a kid and or taking his hand??) in any way to compel their child to do something. It made me feel simultaneously shocked at the audacity of parenting like that and guilty for all the “force” I use doing even simple things like hand washing and teeth brushing.}
Anyway, I hope these help! Happy tantrums, guys. just kidding. But good luck!


  1. Laura, can I use these same techniques for tantrums initiated by my wife?

    1. hahaha, I'm picturing you counting to five and then your wife punching you in the face (not really). I like your style. I'm going to try it now. I'll get back to you.