Tantrum Magic: The Technique My Mom Used to Cure My Tantrum Habit

Right now I’m  answering the questions people ask me the most at conferences, via email, and on Facebook. Here’s a common one:

Question: What do I do about my kid having temper tantrums?  He sometimes has meltdowns, where he totally loses control, and I’m trying to find ways to deal with them, but he also just plain throws tantrums when I won’t buy him a toy or give him candy.  I don’t want him to yell himself red in front of everyone at the grocery store, but I also don’t want to spoil him by giving him everything he wants.

Answer: First, let me say how great it is that most people asking about tantrums are aware that there is a huge difference between tantrums and meltdowns.  Knowing the difference is a great start that will help you and your child throughout your years of parenting. In fact, knowing the difference is so important I’m going to do a quick review.

Tantrums are pretty universal: most kids will, at some point, pitch a giant hairy cat fit in the hopes of convincing mom or dad that they really, really, really need an Action Sam action figure with real Action Sam action and kung-fu grip, and they need it RIGHT NOW.

A meltdown, however, is a completely different kettle of fish.  A meltdown is a neurological response to emotional, sensory, or physical overload.  Exhaustion from lack of sleep, hunger, thirst, frustration, pain, or just plain too much sensory input can trigger a meltdown.  The brain has had it up to here, and it can’t take no more, and all systems go into chaos mode.  It’s about pain, and you can’t tell someone “Hey, stop being overloaded and in pain” and expect it to help the situation.

The big problem comes when parents or teachers start punishing children for having meltdowns.   I got punished for having meltdowns quite a lot, and it made me dread them more, which made me anxious and fearful. If I found myself getting upset and felt like I might be “losing it,” the bio-chemistry of the resulting anxiety and fear definitely made my meltdowns more likely and more awful!

But enough about meltdowns: How can parents effectively deal with tantrums? What can  parents do when their child is stop embarrassing them in public with yelling, pleading, crying, begging, and general hissy-fit throwing?

Now we get to my mother’s simple cure for my terrible tantrum habit — and believe me I had one.  It’s super-simple —   but it’s not easy.  It is, however, the only thing I know that leads to fewer tantrums and less public screaming.  Had my mom known about  meltdowns, she would have realized I stopped throwing actual tantrums pretty young purely because of how she handled them.

What did my mom do that was so amazingly magical? How did she transform the ultra-mega fire breathing drama queen that I was born to be into someone who didn’t throw tantrums on purpose? She DIDN’T GIVE IN.  They didn’t yell at me, they didn’t scold me, they didn’t even punish me, they just waited for me to be done and never gave a single inch of ground.  For real.

When I (as an adult) asked my mother if she was embarrassed to stand in the middle of a big department store with five-year-old me laying on the ground screaming my fool head off, she told me, “Why would I be embarrassed?  You were the one on the floor screaming.” That woman has nerves of steel.

If she got tired of waiting for me to end my tantrum and didn’t want to wait any longer, she would remove me from the situation.  As a young child, I was physically removed from restaurants, department stores, drug stores — well, pretty much anywhere you could think of.  There were quite a few times she pushed a cart nearly full of food to the front of the grocery store, told a clerk that the things in it needed to be put back, and then escorted/dragged/carried me to the car.

Every time, she kept it cool (at least on the outside).  And she never, ever, ever, ever caved.

(I found out later that after getting me off to school she would sometimes stomp around the house and slam  cupboards.  I never would have guessed!)

It really works.  If you don’t give a child what they are tantruming for, they lose the motivation to tantrum — sometimes it make take a while (it may feel like aeons), but if tantrums don’t get them anywhere, they’ve got no reason to pitch them.  In fact, if you consistently don’t give in and they keep having tantrums ad infinitum, then there is another reason for all that screaming they are doing.  It may be that they are having meltdowns, or that they have no other way to get out of a painful situation that they shouldn’t be in anyway.

Look, staying cool and not responding or giving in during a tantrum is  really difficult, but it’s worth it.  The one caveat is that if you eventually cave and give them what they want, you will be starting from scratch the next time they tantrum.

Let me be clear: if you hold out while your child tantrums for 14 minutes, and then cave, your child now knows that if he keeps going for 14 minutes he can get what he wants.  Whenever you cave, you’ve just taught your child exactly what he has to do to get what he wants, and he’ll by gum do it.  Giving in to a tantrum is parenting kryptonite.

One advantage to dealing with tantrums by not giving in, and by removing the child from the situation as necessary, is that it minimizes the damage if you mistake a meltdown for a tantrum.  Since you as a parent have to keep yourself cool (at least on the outside) and since the major consequence is leaving the situation which is causing the problem, most kids will do okay with this technique if their parents make a wrong assessment once in a great while.

So dealing with tantrums is simple: react as little as possible, never give in to the demands of a child who is having a tantrum, and be willing to take the child and walk away from the situation.  Simple, but difficult – but it can be done.  In fact, it can be done by YOU, yes YOU.  You’ve got this!

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