By Lorenzo Azzi, Ph.D.
In my previous “Managing Meltdowns” post, I referred to the practice of helping your child calm down using a two-step technique that focuses on acknowledging their feelings and helping them learn to cope with those feelings. Parents often confuse this practice of acknowledgement with “giving in” or “giving them attention for bad behavior,” believing that by recognizing the emotion they are encouraging their child to continue behaving a specific way. This misconception often leads to continued tantruming and frustrated parents wondering what they can do to correct the behavior. I wanted to provide some additional information and support for parents navigating tantrums.
First, it is important to recognize that “giving in” typically refers to giving your child the very thing that they are tantruming about. For example, a child may begin tantruming because they want a certain toy or candy and you said, “No.” Providing them with that toy or candy to stop the tantruming is “giving in” to the undesired behavior. Conversely, acknowledging that they may want that toy or candy, responding sensitively to their negative emotions and helping them to verbalize and cope with those emotions is NOT “giving in” to the behavior.
WHY DOES MY CHILD CONTINUE TO TANTRUM?
There are several reasons why children experience frequent tantrums. First, tantrums, which generally occur when a child’s negative feelings overwhelm his/her ability to cope, is developmentally appropriate and expected in toddlers and preschool-aged children. Some children have learned that this might be an effective way of getting what they want even when they are not experiencing an overwhelming negative emotion. In these cases, children might continue to tantrum, for the same reason slot machines can be so addictive – you never know when it will pay off. Slot machines are based on an unpredictable schedule of reinforcement. This practice is most closely associated with keeping someone in a behavioral pattern because they know that eventually the behavior will result in a reward.
Tantruming often continues because a parent has given in, which reinforces their behavior – they associate the behavior with eventually getting what they want.
WHAT CAN I DO?
The best thing for a parent to do is to be consistent. If the answer is “yes,” say “yes.” If the answer is “no,” say and mean “no.” If the answer is “maybe,” it is okay to say “maybe.”
The idea behind consistency is to say what you mean. For example, if you say “no” to gum or candy in the checkout line, you have to be prepared to stick with “no” even when the tantrum spirals into a full-blown meltdown. If you give in to one tantrum because in that moment it seems easier, it can potentially lead into dozens of more tantrums down the road.
It is important to note that at first children may engage in increased tantruming because the payout has stopped. This is because they have learned that eventually you will give in. Once you set the boundaries and consistently stick to them, your child will begin to change their behavior because they are no longer receiving the reward associated with the tantruming.
The good news? It’s never too late to change this tantruming behavior, even if you’ve given in before.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You should acknowledge your child’s feelings in a sensitive way without “giving in” to their tantrum. Be sensitive and empathic to their feelings while simultaneously engaging in consistency with your child and sticking to your guns even if your child goes into meltdown mode. You can always refer to the two-step guide in “Managing Meltdowns” to help your child verbalize and cope with their feelings.
Lorenzo Azzi, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in infant and toddler social emotional development at Southwest Human Development, where he provides consultation to families via the Nurse Family Partnership program, Early Head Start program and the Good Fit Counseling Center — Arizona’s only mental health center for young children. He also serves as faculty for the prestigious Harris Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Training Program.