Rita Watson: Help children overcome tantrums by building positive relationships
- Rita Watson: When caregivers need care, too
We have all witnessed a child’s tantrum in a supermarket, pharmacy, or even walking along the street. It might be over a candy bar, a toy, wanting to get out of the stroller, or just wanting to go home.
What is a parent to do? Jane Dennison, a Barrington pediatrician affiliated with Women & Infants Hospital and the Brown University clinical faculty, has practical advice for specific age groups. And Angela Stewart, a clinical psychiatrist at the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center, talks about a research-based approach that focuses on building positive relationships.
“Praise and building self-esteem is a key aspect of our outpatient program at Bradley Hasbro for 5 to 12 year olds,” Stewart said. “It is a structured approach that helps parents come to see the value of ‘Let’s build positive relationships while building children’s self-esteem.’”
“Praise is the main teaching tool because children listen to praise; whereas, if they get too many directives, they shut down.”
Dennison raised four boys with her husband, a geriatrician. “Semi-verbal children have an overwhelming ‘need’ feeling,” she said. “When they want something, they want it now. What they are trying to do is to change adult behavior. Oftentimes this comes from overstimulation or hunger. And it probably occurs when a parent is trying to squeeze in one more errand even though both parent and child are tired,” she said.
What happens next is a familiar scene: The child throws a tantrum and oftentimes drops to the ground and screams.
Dennison’s suggestion: “In the home, walk away. If you are in a market shopping, and there are groceries in the cart, go to customer service and say, ‘I’ll be back, but I need to leave now.’ What a parent should not do is to give into a child’s tantrum for a candy bar.”
What about the child who throws food across the room? Stay calm and say, “We don’t throw food. If you throw it, you lose it. And there is nothing more to eat,’” Dennison says.
Tantrums begin to taper as children’s verbal skills develop. But for those children who continue the behavior, Dennison said, “Parents should not think at their child’s level. A parent’s job is to remain calm, perhaps saying, ‘I said no to the ice cream and that is not going to change.’ Screaming at children does not work because it turns parents into tantrum throwers.”
Some things do change with children ages 7 to 13. During the teen years and up to the early 20s, behavior becomes a bit more aggressive.
“They start slamming doors, hitting doors or walls and stomping feet,” Dennison said. “Hopefully parents have been though enough years of rational parenting to say, ‘I understand you’re angry at everything today,’ and then changing the subject, ‘Do you want something for dinner?’ It’s important for a parent to hit the mid-zone. Even with a teen who might say, ‘Get out of my life,’ a parent should not react because the next statement might be, ‘But first will you drive us to the mall?”
When a teen is screaming, it is not helpful to scream back. Instead of saying, “You are never going to the mall if you talk to me like that,” Dennison suggests something such as, “I’ll be unloading the dishwasher or putting groceries away. When you want to talk to me I’ll be here.”
Today we live in a text message society. When a teen cannot have a rational conversation with a parent, he or she might turn to texting. A parent might even say, “Write me what you are feeling and I’ll read it.”
Dennison pointed out that “kids today send long, multiple texts. It is their way of unloading.”
Every parent worries that their children will not outgrow tantrums, but they do.
“By 24, most have settled down because they have learned that tantrums are not a useful social technique,” Dennison said. “It turns people off and attracts adult attention. However, if tantrums continue — kicking or slamming doors, hitting fists against a wall — that is the transition to requiring anger management.”
With regard to families who seek treatment for tantrums, Stewart explained, “It is often those who are confused, embarrassed, disappointed and angry. Parents often feel a wide range of emotions and worry about their child’s future. It is important that they remain calm, whether their children can bring themselves back to a state of calm or remain in a heightened state; the main role of the parent is to reestablish calmness.”
She suggests time-outs, praise, special time, rewards and preventive measures to limit the tantrum.
Rita Watson, MPH, is a Thrive columnist reporting on health and spirituality.