Parenting: Heading Off the Tantrum

3766009204_8721a00dde_zphoto by mindaugas danys (creative commons)

Here are two simple tactics for heading off tantrums — giving choices and verbally preparing the child — both are remarkably effective. You give the child a choice. What the choices are is much less important than the fact of offering choices. For example:

  • Would you like to clean your room or would you like to take a nap now?
  • Do you want to finish your dinner and have some ice cream, or are you ready to brush teeth?

As you can see, often the questions can be quite leading, and the child will have no problem making the choice. In offering a choice the child feels a sense of some control and agency. And in this first move toward independence (the second being adolescence) having a sense of agency, the ability to do what you want, is very important. Offering choices also conveys respect. I’ve seen offering choices in action, and it is very effective. Try it sometime. You prepare the child. If you know that the child is not going to like doing something, then give the kid a “heads up.” For instance, if you’re going to a dental appointment, let the child know a day or two in advance. If you forget, even an hour before is helpful. And keep reminding the child.

You know we’re going to the dentist tomorrow. I don’t like the dentist. Why’s that? It’s scary. I know it’s scary. I’ll be there with you. I know you don’t like going to the dentist that much, but we’re going to go tomorrow.

The child may react positively or negatively, either way you’ll have a chance to discuss it with her. You will also be showing the child respect. You are not going to ambush her with a trip to the dentist. Imagine if someone told you out of nowhere, “I’m taking you to the dentist.” Or, worse yet, imagine if someone took you for a drive and then pulled into the dentist’s parking lot. How would you feel? Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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