photo by jennifer woodward maderazo (creative commons)
My child has lost it. I’m about to lose it.
This is related to how to praise a child. Here’s a typical scenario: The child, being a 3-and-a-half-year old is extremely frustrated because it can’t have what it wants. Your last nerve was worn out an hour ago, and truth be told, you are starting to dislike your little darling. You are tempted to raise your voice. You are tempted to give the kid a time-out. You are tempted to tap the kid on the side of the head. So what should you do at this point?
A common parenting dilemma.
Some would say that talking to the child at this point is giving the child attention for having a tantrum and this is bad. I disagree, partially. It is true, you don’t want to reinforce bad behavior. But let’s be clear on two points. First, a tantrum at 3-and-a-half is not bad behavior. It is age-appropriate behavior. Nevertheless, you don’t want to encourage the tantrum. Nor do you want to reinforce it with rewards. Second, and more important, you do want to show the child that you understand he is frustrated, or whatever the experience he is having.
But that sounds like a contradiction!
It is, in a way. Here’s what you do. Remembering that you are the adult and the other person is 3-and-a-half, you gather together all the self-composure you can. You get down to his level, so that you are speaking eye-to-eye (that’s important). You let the child know, in a calm voice, that you understand what he is going through: “I’m sorry little Johnny, I can see that this is very hard. I know you really want to eat ice cream right now, but we’re not going to do that today.” You make sure that the child heard you, and you set a limit. You comfort the child a little. You have shown the child two important things: that you are sympathetic to his frustration, and that you are not going to give in to a tantrum. For a child being heard is very important. Being the boss is not. Being in control of situations is actually disturbing for children. It makes them test even more to find out what the limits are.
The tantrum continues.
If the child continues with the meltdown. Now, in the calmest, non-punitive voice you can manage (this takes practice!) you tell the child, “Johnny, I see that this is very hard for you, but if you are going to keep screaming and hitting then you are going to have to have a time-out. Do you understand?” The child may calm down. More likely he will continue full blast with the ear-splitting behavior. Then you gently take the child to its room and close the door. You do this in a very matter-of-fact manner.
Note: Below age 3 or so, a time-out is probably not a good idea. Really kids just cannot self-regulate that young. From age 3 up, an appropriate length of time is a roughly a minute per year of age. So for a three-year-old: three minutes. For a four-year-old: four minutes. And so on.
But what if I’m in public?
Parenting is not for the faint of heart. It is not easy to have people staring at you, as if you have just done something horrendous to your child — and people will stare. Mostly because it is difficult for anyone to hear a child screaming. Possibly because, sadly, people will take any chance they can to feel superior. So, back to the kid. You need to find a consequence for the child that fits the outburst. You might try telling the child that if they don’t stop making this noise that we are going to have to: a) go sit in the car until he’s done, or perhaps b) not visit his friend later in the day, or even c) go straight home. You do not want to overreact. You want to show the child that you are in control, and that the child’s choice has an impact on the situation.
It all succeeds or fails on one critical point.
This cannot be overemphasized. You absolutely must follow up with any consequence you have stated. So from the outset, have it clear in your mind that you are ready to carry out the the consequence. Even if it is inconvenient. Even if it means a change in plans. Even if it makes you feel bad. Otherwise you will not be taken seriously. In fact, the child will have taken one step toward being in charge. Not only is this important because of the message it sends: when mommy or daddy says they are going to do something then they do it. That’s what makes it a limit.
Setting limits, establishing authority.
But also, every time a child sees that he can get away with something it means you will make it much, much harder to establish a limit in the future. Roughly speaking, if a tantrum is reinforced once, it’s going to take roughly 10-15 more tantrums before you’ve re-established authority. Think about that very carefully before you give in to your child. Sometimes it is convenient to give in. Especially when people are staring. But just stop yourself and really think — do I want to go through this ten more times?? In a moment of weakness, this may give you strength.
Setting limits with a child can be very difficult. Perhaps your parents didn’t set firm limits? Perhaps there were no limits. Perhaps your parents were too controlling. Nobody wants to repeat the mistakes of their parents. But we need to be able to separate our experience from the experience of our child. We are not our parents. Our child is not us. Here’s a brief recap regarding how to deal with tantrums:
- At eye-level, acknowledge the child.
- Use a calm voice. This says, “I’m in control.”
- Offer a consequence if the behavior continues. Take a deep breath and use a calm voice.
- If necessary follow through with the consequence. You’ll be saving yourself a lot of energy in the long run.
- If the child is able to calm himself down, then you might even praise him for doing such a good job. It is no small accomplishment for young children to learn to self-regulate difficult emotions.
A final word of caution.
There is no cookie-cutter approach to parenting. You will find that what works for one child does not work for another, even within a family. You will have to find out what works for each child, and it will take time. You will also have to experiment to learn what is comfortable for you as a parent. Each parent, even within a family, may have different abilities to stay calm, acknowledge the child, deliver consequences. Parents do not develop bottomless patience over night. It takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if things go wrong. Simply take a look at what went wrong, and what you can learn from the situation. In this way, we learn not to make the same mistakes over and over.
Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.