The day that your child turns red then blue while writhing on the floor in an attempt to get his or her way, is a day when you earn perhaps your first parenting medal, “valor under stress.”
Joan, a mother of two, related to me her ordeal of a temper tantrum with three-year-old, Robbie.
“It started with such a silly thing. We had told Robbie he couldn’t go with his dad to the store after lunch. Robbie spent the next forty-five minutes screaming and crying. Bob finally had enough and said Robbie could go. Bob felt guilty that Robbie had spent all this time upset, when it was supposed to be ‘quality’ Dad time. But I think Bob shouldn’t have given in to Robbie’s tantrum.”
“I can see how Bob was feeling,” I responded. “But Bob violated the Tommy Lee Jones rule.”
“What rule is that?”
“It’s from a movie, US Marshals, where Tommy Lee Jones’ character states, ‘I don’t negotiate with terrorists.’ It works with children, too.”
“If Robbie takes you ‘hostage’ with a tantrum, you can’t give in to his demands,” I continued. “If you do, Robbie will learn that a tantrum works, and next time he’ll be prepared to go a little longer to get his way. A forty-five minute tantrum tells me that this is not the first one.”
“You’re right,” Joan blushed. “Robbie’s so different than our easygoing six-year-old. How can we help Robbie?”
Tantrums usually begin before a child is fully verbal. We, as parents, in all fairness, try to meet our children’s needs.
Inadvertently we allow tantrums to grow by reinforcing the child’s belief that a tantrum is an effective communication tool.
When we give in to a tantrum, the child has found a powerful way to get what he wants.
“It’s not going to be pleasant to help Robbie stop his tantrums. First you must remember the Tommy Lee Jones Rule and be prepared to ride it out. You must be firm, yet kind.”
“Talk with Robbie, and tell him something like this: ‘My job is to help you learn how to be happy. When you scream and cry I know I have to help you. When you get upset, I’ll ask you to use your words to tell me how you feel. If you can’t do that, I’ll ask you to go to your room until you can talk to me. If you don’t go to your room, I’ll walk you in. Do you understand? I love you and want you to learn to be happy.'”
“If Robbie starts to throw a tantrum, kindly remind him about your talk. Remind him to use his words. If Robbie can’t calm down, ask him to go to his room until he can talk to you. If he refuses, carry him in, and kindly tell him that he may leave when he feels like talking. Say something like, ‘I love you, but you need to learn how deal with your tantrums.'”
“Sometimes, a child will learn that tantrums aren’t going to work anymore on the first ‘test’ of the rule. For others it takes a few times. Remember, don’t be held hostage.”
Joan and Bob were successful at communicating to Robbie about their expectations for his behavior, and they didn’t negotiate. Robbie’s tantrums ended.
If tantrums continue, keep a written record of when and why they occur. A pattern should appear according to time, place and situation. Tiredness, hunger, a parent being gone or over stimulation may be “trigger” factors that will become evident.
Tantrums can become a learned behavior to control others.
Unfortunately, we all know adults who use tantrums to get their way. As a friend of mine says, “It’s not pretty.” Perhaps imagining our child in a tantrum at age thirty may help us have that right amount of firmness, kindness and courage.
One of the key things to look for with tantrums is the child’s intention.
Ask: Is this episode about a power struggle, and the child trying to get his way? Or, is this an episode where the child is finding it impossible to calm down due to not knowing how to calm down?
In the case of where the child is finding it impossible to calm down, sitting with the child, patting the child’s back and making your safe presence clear, is what the child needs to calm the emotional brain.
For the defiant child, clear limits on behavior need to be established and enforced.
This is the art of parenting. Stopping and looking at the situation and finding patterns of behavior.
This is an example of two very different responses for behavior that may look the same at first glance.