June 13, 2007

Tantrums and “Acting-Out” Behaviors

Another Very Common Question

Today I will deal with another very common question that I receive at least three times a week. These great questions have to do with the very common problems presented by children throwing tantrums and “acting-out” in other very inappropriate ways.

These very common parenting problems can involve a wide variety of situations; a very young child just throwing a tantrum at bedtime or nap time, a toddler throwing a fit over a toy, a grade-school-age child running around and grabbing things at the grocery store, or a teenager cussing at a parent over some disagreement. My mail tells me that parents experience the whole spectrum of difficulties with these and many more kinds of “acting-out” behaviors. Kids find many ways to “act-out” and create annoyances.

So many parents ask me about what to do when children are doing these kinds of things and my answer to all of them is usually pretty much the same. “If you wait until the annoying behavior has begun, you will most likely never have success in dealing with the problem!”

The Big Problem: Crisis Management

The big problem that I see most parents encounter is that they try to deal with “acting-out” behaviors by crisis management! They wait until the behavior has begun to try to deal with it, and believe me, that technique almost always fails! To deal with tantrums, and the like, effectively, parents must be proactive and preventative. It just does not work to wait until the child is “acting-out” to deal with the behavior.

"What should I do When..."

Today I went back and reread about fifty or sixty of those frantic e-mails from parents dealing with those types of problems. In the wording of their questions, I can see the problem quite clearly. Almost every single question begins with these words: “What should I do when my child…” Waiting until the child has begun the undesirable behavior is totally reactive in nature… and, by definition, it puts the child “in the driver’s seat!” The Ideas in their heads will rule their world... so put a positive idea in their head BEFORE they are in the situation.

Teaching During Turmoil Is Futile!

Waiting until the child is throwing a tantrum to try to teach a more desirable behavior would be much like me coming to your house and waiting until you and your spouse (or some other person) are having a big fight and then, picking that very moment to step between you and try to teach you how to download some kind of software onto your computer! Teaching at times of turmoil is almost totally futile!

Be Proactive

So here is my suggestion for dealing with tantrums and “acting-out” behaviors. Be proactive. Choose a time when both you and the child are calm and then teach the child the desired behavior (Rule #1). If the child is throwing a tantrum at bedtime every night, don’t wait until bedtime to deal with the problem. It is very predictable that the child will be in turmoil at that time. Start early in the day and teach the child how the evening will progress.

Take a clock and show the child when bedtime is on the clock. (They really do not have to be able to tell time. Just show them that when the little hand is on eight and the big hand is on twelve it will be bedtime.) Then let the child go with you into their bedroom and pick out the books that you will read at bedtime and lay them out on the bed. This can be done early in the day. Later in the day, at another calm time, go back into the child’s bedroom and pick out the toys that he/she will take to bed that evening.

Every time that you talk about bedtime, talk about the actions that both the child and you will use at bedtime. Teach the child the desired behavior in small increments. Repeat this brief process a number of times during the day. It can be fit around a parent’s work schedule. The key is to get some repetitions at calm times.

Finally get a timer; one of those little things that you can set to time baking. Show your child how the timer works and then, an hour before bedtime, have the child help you to set the timer for one hour. Every fifteen minutes have the child check the timer with you to see how long it is until bedtime. At each of those intervals, remind the child about the books and toys that are in the bed waiting and how much fun it will be to go to bed.

Then when it is fifteen minutes until bedtime, go and get the child dressed for bed and brush the teeth. When the timer rings for bedtime, celebrate with your child the excitement of getting to go to bed and read the books that are waiting there for you.

Let Your Actions Do Your Teaching

With some very positive ideas about bedtime in their head, the child will most likely not even choose to start a tantrum. If a tantrum does arise, be calm and repeat the desired behavior... but be firm and put the child in bed with the books and toys. Do not let the child leave the bed. Sit quietly with the child on the bed. If the ruckus quiets just a little bit, calmly start reading one of the books in a calm and quiet tone of voice.

Now, the key is to repeat this behavior over a few weeks. (Rule #3) Every night make this the routine. As time passes let the child do more and more of the planning for the bedtime. Let them choose books and toys on their own, etc. Let them set the timer and check the timer from time to time.

Over time the undesirable behavior will be replaced by the very calm “bedtime routine” that you have taught the child.

I must add one closing thought here. Many parents tell me that they just don’t have that much time to give to this problem. Then I always ask them, “How much time are you spending with the totally ineffective technique of fighting at bedtime right now?” There is always a long silence. Then I point out that with the technique I am suggesting, the amount of time required from the parent will decrease with time but with the technique they are using, the time given to bedtime will most likely escalate. Make a choice; give me time now or time later. But ask yourself, which one results in a calm and appropriate behavior from your child?”

Check back in my next article and I will share some specific techniques for dealing with other acting out behaviors with older children.


Anonymous said...

I have found that if our son expects what will happen next, he seldom reacts unfavorably. When we're going to take him to bed, we ask him to pick out which pajamas he wants to wear, and then which books he want to read. Then, after we've read a couple of books, we tell him that it's time to go to sleep and put him down.

It sounds a little simplistic, but even though he's less than 2 years old, he is far more comfortable if he knows what is coming next, and has some say in those events.

Anonymous said...

Respecting Parents is nice thing to
do I want to love my Parents.