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The Informed Parent

When Children Tantrum, Part 2

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Feb. 05, 2001

Have you ever watched older children tantrum? They can really get into it. They cry or scream loudly, and may contort their bodies and kick whatever they can reach. The tantrum can be frightening to an observer and to the child himself.

In last month’s article, we talked about how to effectively parent a young child who tantrums. This month our focus is on the older child.

Why Children Tantrum

Some people conclude that older children who tantrum are spoiled—that they tantrum just to get what they want. Others think that tantrums result from anger. Still others believe that children tantrum to gain control. Each of these conclusions contains some truth.

Older children who tantrum are discouraged. They don’t know how to get their needs met through appropriate behavior. While perhaps not spoiled, some children have learned that they can get what they want when they tantrum. Parents give in to the child’s demands because they don’t know how to respond effectively.

While tantrums look like outbursts of anger, beneath the anger are feelings of fear. The child is afraid that he does not have the ability or skills to do what is being asked of him, or feels like he is losing control of a situation or person.

Older children who have tantrums believe that they can only belong, get the attention, and have the power that they want when they behave inappropriately. Unfortunately, unwitting adults often strengthen this belief by reinforcing the inappropriate behavior. True, the reinforcement is negative and comes in the form of yelling, nagging, or using physical force with the child. To a discouraged child, even this negative attention is better than not enough attention.

To compound the situation, adults often give in to the child’s demands just to end the scene. This teaches the child that if he has the energy to keep the tantrum going, he will ultimately wear the adult down and will get what he thinks he wants.

The Cycles of a Tantrum

Last month we discussed the cycles of a tantrum in the young child. The cycles are the same for all tantrums, regardless of the child’s age. Let’s review. Initially the child exhibits signs of agitation. The agitation moves into frustration. The frustration escalates into a tantrum. The tantrum de-escalates. You will recall that in the young child this phase is one of deep sobbing. In the older child, it is a phase of crying or withdrawing. In young children, when the sobbing subsides, the child seeks solace from you, from sleep, from thumb sucking or from cuddling with a blanket or favorite toy. Older children may remain withdrawn, cuddle a favorite toy, or come to you in remorse. This remorse often takes the form of a sheepish, “Sorry,” of clinging to you, or of becoming overly helpful. The child needs to assure himself that you have not rejected him because of his behavior.

Diverting a Tantrum

Ten-year-old Sean sat at the kitchen table muttering over his homework. “I hate this stuff. I don’t know why we have to have homework every night. She’s a stupid teacher. She didn’t even show us how to do it. I hate her.”

Sean’s mother stepped over. “Hmm, I see that you’re working on multiplication tonight. That is hard. How can I help?” Attuned to Sean’s moods and tendency toward tantrums, his mom had learned when to step in and just how much to say. She avoided addressing his whining and focused on the task at hand. Her quiet manner worked well with Sean. Together they decided to set a timer for two minutes at which time Sean would finish three math problems. When the timer bell rang, Mom would check his work and sit with him for the next two minutes.

Mom had learned to give attention to Sean’s positive behavior and to ignore his inappropriate behavior. This is not easy to do. It is especially hard when one is busy, tired, and has tasks that you want to do for yourself.

If you can reach your child during the stage of agitation or the very early stages of frustration, you are likely to help him divert the ensuing tantrum into positive behavior. This takes practice and consistency.

Once a tantrum is underway, you need to get out of the way and let it take its course. The more skilled you are at ignoring the behavior, the more likely the ill-tempered behavior is to diminish. Check The Informed Parent archives for the article “When Children Tantrum” for further information on ignoring tantrums. The principles discussed for use with young children are the same ones to use with older children.

First Things First

Like you, Sean’s mother was a busy person. She held a job outside the home and had other children to care for. By evening she was tired and would have liked nothing better than to curl up with a good book. She had learned, however, that to effectively parent Sean took time. Lots of time. She had also learned that effective parenting resulted in a stronger relationship between her and her son. An added benefit was that the time she now spent with Sean was far more positive. She didn’t feel exhausted by him as she had in the past.

When a family has a child with a problem, if that child is to become a contributing member of the family, the situation needs to become a first priority. Parents need to find a way to effectively parent the child and to arrange their own life in order for that to become possible.

When you have a child that is discouraged, you, too, feel discouraged. Talk to your pediatrician or a counselor. Some professional intervention may be necessary. Ask for a bibliography of parenting books to assist you. Above all, get the support that you need so that you have the strength to deal with the problem. Discouraged children feel helpless if they know that their parent is not hopeful.

The following tools will assist you in helping your child learn to meet his needs in positive ways:

Pay Attention to the Positive

Discouraged children want to belong. They want to feel like an integral and important part of the family. Since they do not feel that way, they behave inappropriately to draw attention to themselves. When you believe your child tantrums to receive attention, begin giving attention to positive behavior when he is not asking for it. Become attuned to small nuances of positive behavior. Acknowledge positive acts in a low key but explicit way. “Thanks for carrying in the grocery bag” is plenty of attention. It indicates your pleasure, tells the child what he did that you liked, and the comment is succinct. If you carry on too much in your attention, the child won't believe you.

Using an “I” message when giving acknowledgement eliminates some of the power struggles that children use when the goal of the tantrum is to gain power and control. These discouraged children feel like they belong only when they are in control or when proving that no one can “boss them around”. Children who only know how to use negative behavior to gain power often refute the efforts of their parents. If you say something like, “I like the way you started your homework without being asked”, they make responses like, “I was asked. Remember when I came home from school, you said, ‘Do you have any homework?’” Just ignore these refutes. Discouraged children see themselves as failures and will work to keep that perception even though it is not in their best interest.

Withdraw From the Conflict

Many children who tantrum to gain control have enormous stamina. They can carry a tantrum on for a very long time. Most have learned that this is a battle they ultimately win. Only a strong and secure parent has the fortitude to not intervene with an ill-tempered child whose goal is control. Gaining the ability to withdraw from the conflict is the only way your child will learn that his inappropriate behavior is not effective.

Assist your youngster in learning that he can gain positive power through cooperation. Give him opportunities to help you with tasks. Provide choices for him whenever possible. “Would you rather have peas or string beans with dinner?” seems like a small choice. It is a choice, however, that give the child positive control. Children who only know how to gain control with negative behavior don’t have much practice with making positive choices. To an offer like the above, they often respond with “I don’t care. You choose.” Avoid the bait. Say something like, “Well, I’ll leave both out for a few minutes and you think about it. Just put the bag that you don’t want back into the freezer.” If you get out of the way, the choice will be made.

What Are the Chances of Success?

School-age children who tantrum have a history of this behavior that is not easy to change. With your effective parenting, the child who tantrums for attention will begin exhibiting positive behaviors and fewer tantrums more quickly than the one who tantrums to gain control.

Parenting children who tantrum is not easy. It requires skill, patience, and perseverance. These children exhaust parents. It is no wonder many give in to the tantrum just to get the child to stop. Guard against this. Get the support you need as you learn to deal with the situation. Giving in to a child who has tantrums only increases his belief that this is the surest way to get what he wants.

Occasionally a physical or psychological disorder is the basis for ongoing tantrums in older children. Although this is not common, if you have concerns, speak to the pediatrician.

Families who have a child that has tantrums live with tension and anxiety. They live in apprehension of the next episode. If this is your family, rest assured that change is possible. You can assist your child to learn positive ways of getting the attention, power and control that he wants. The process may not be quick, but with your commitment, consistency, and follow through harmony can reign in your family.

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