So you are in the checkout line at the supermarket and your toddler wants one of those colorful candies. You’ve been out doing errands and the supermarket is your last stop. Your son has been great up to now. He’s been a trooper as you dragged him from errand to errand. But now, as dinnertime approaches, he has reached his limit. You say no to the candy and here comes his full fledged fit. He wheels back his head, screeches out and starts flailing his arms and legs. He’s thrown himself into one of his best tantrums. Oh how you wish this behavior would go away. It is just so embarrassing, especially in public. How are you supposed to deal with a tantruming child in a supermarket as (it seems) half the world looks on? Should you give him the candy? Offer something else? Just ignore him? If I ignore him, won’t other people think I am a bad parent?
In order to deal with tantrums, parents need to understand why children have tantrums in the first place. Most children go through periods of “trial and error” behavior. They try a behavior because they didn’t get their way. Many different behaviors develop in this way; for example, temper tantrums, breath holding spells, head banging, pulling their own hair, and even whining. There really isn’t a rational reason for their behavior except that they are frustrated and act out for attention because of that frustration.
So if tantrums are due to “trial and error” behavior why do they repeatedly occur? First of all, children have short memories. They may not get anything from one tantrum but because of a short memory they try it again another time. It takes a child a long time to really remember that a behavior doesn’t yield him anything. The other reason why the behavior comes back is that the child gains something from the behavior. Children can become the center of attention during a temper tantrum. At the same time they can be in control of the responses they are getting from people. The attention they get and the control they have can make a tantrum a powerful tool for a young child.
So how should parents response to a tantrum? Here are some rules to follow:
1. Remember that this behavior is just “trial and error” behavior. In your child’s mind they are saying – “if I try this fit what happens?” That is why if they get no real response from their action, they will try some other behavior instead – eventually!
2. Remember the struggle for attention and control. Getting attention for a behavior and being able to control other people’s responses are rewarding actions for children. Don’t reward tantrums by giving them attention or letting them control you by getting under your skin.
3. Children have short memories. If you don’t give attention to a tantrum and another tantrum occurs within the same week, don’t be discouraged. For most families it takes months for tantrums to decrease in frequency. Children continue with their “trial and error” behavior for a while to be sure they aren’t getting a result. This is especially true when a parent is changing their approach from one of giving attention to a tantrum to taking attention away.
4. Remember that a child’s behavior is theirs – not yours. Many parents in public places feel like their child’s behavior is the parent’s responsibility. But that is absolutely false. Only the response to the child’s behavior is the parent’s responsibility. The behavior should be owned by the child not by the parent.
5. Safety first. Your child won’t look out for his/her safety while having a fit. Make sure they are in a safe place to have their fit before you decrease your attention to them.
6. Finally, everyone who cares for your child needs to treat tantrums the same way. If children receive benefits from tantrums anywhere you are more likely to see the behavior again.
So back at the supermarket, the poor parent with the tantruming toddler needs to ignore her child and finish the task at hand. The parent needs to get out of the store as quickly and calmly as possible. And during the ride home the tantrum will go away. And that parent will be ready to succeed when the next tantrum blossoms from their child again. Hopefully others who witness scenes like these will have greater understanding and empathy towards the parents who are trying to tame their toddler’s tantrums.