For professional resources for BCBAs and RBTs, check out Behavioral CUSP Academy

How to Deal with Tantrums

How to Deal with Tantrums | Parent Like a Professional

We can all admit that toddler tantrums are really difficult to live with. 

Yes, they are a normal part of development (our pediatrician asked us at the 18 month check up if our daughter had started tantrumming); yes, they are common -- but it doesn't mean we have to just sit back and accept them.

Something that I say to a lot of the parents I work with is, "Is it 'normal?' Yes; there is nothing wrong with your child.  But can it be better?  You betcha."

If you have small children, then you probably recognize your child's different cries at this point.

There is the "I'm hurt" cry.

There is the "I'm sad/scared" cry.

And then there is the "I'm pissed" cry.

This last cry is what we are going to consider a tantrum.  One of the biggest critiques that behavior analysts often get is that we are only concerned with behavior and don't consider emotions, and this just isn't true. 

There is nothing wrong with your child.  But can it be better?  You betcha.

Like most other parents, I know when my daughter's cry is sad and requiring mommy's comforting.  I pick her up and love her and give her the words that she doesn't yet have. "Was that a loud noise?  Did it scare you?  I bet that was really scary."

But I do also know the tantrum - it usually comes after she has been told "no" or had something taken away.  It  happens when she is asked to wait for something, or when she's asked to do something that she doesn’t like (recently, changing her diaper, which is super fun).   

And as a parent, when these occur, I don't feel sad for her (like I do when she's fallen and hurt herself). 

I feel frustrated and annoyed.

How to Deal with Tantrums | Parent Like a Professional
Luckily because I have had many years of training as a behavior analyst before I ever became a parent, it makes it easier to go into the "What's the best thing to do here?" mode rather than getting emotional about it (I said it is easier for me; I didn't say I am perfect!)

Let's Talk Tantrums

For all of our kids, tantrums are most likely communicating something to us as parents (Read: Misbehavior = Communication

Most of the time our children tantrum, we know exactly what they are trying to tell us; right? 

  • He wants more ice cream
  • He wants the toy that just got taken away. 
  • She doesn't want to have her diaper changed. 

I mean, life is hard and dealing with disappointment is difficult, right!? ;

But disappointment (not always getting what you want, delaying gratification, doing things you don't like to do) is all a part of life, and so, as parents, it is our job to try and help our children learn better ways of dealing with disappointment.  

What we hope to teach our children is this: it's okay to feel disappointed, but it is not okay to respond to disappointment by screaming, throwing things, flopping on the floor, biting, et cetera.

How to Deal with Tantrums

You know what your child is upset about; right?

Could it really be that simple?

Yes and No.

Determining what you should do is simple (like I said above, just don't give into what they want).

How to execute this is not so simple, especially when it requires us to endure our screaming, sad, child. 

For most parents, it tugs at the heart strings to see your child this upset.

Sometimes, we are out in public and it's not as simple to just NOT give in to our screaming child.

For the sake of easy illustration, let's deal with some straightforward examples where you are at home, in a controlled setting, and no one is around to judge your parenting.

You: "Let's go change your diaper."
Your child: Screaming, crying
You: Thinking, "What is he trying to say? Probably 'I don't want to change my diaper.'

What do you do? Don't give him what he wants. Pick him up and take him to the changing table. PERIOD.  End of story.

Is it harder to change the diaper of a screaming wriggling toddler?  Yes, of course.  Be patient, wait him out and get that diaper changed.

One of the recent trends in parenting styles that I have seen emerge over the last five years is the idea that children need to be heard and validated; that they should be allowed a voice and opinion in all things.

And though to a certain extent, I completely agree with and support allowing children a voice, giving them choices, being flexible and willing to negotiate, I do not agree that when a child tantrums, we should be employing these strategies. 

Tantrums are not the right way to communicate with me, and the way that I teach that is not by explaining this to my toddler while she is screeching; it is by showing her with consequences that it doesn't work. (Read: The Curse of Overexplaining). 

Back to how to deal with tantrums…let's do another example:

You: "Let's clean up your toys."
Your child: Screaming and crying
You: Thinking, "What is he trying to say? Probably,  want to keep playing.'

What do you do?  Don't give him what he wants. Move over and calmly remove the toys and put them away or help your child to clean them up together.

What we will start to see over time if fewer and less severe tantrums.  As tantrums are relatively typical depending on age range, we won't see them completely disappear.  However, we will see less of them. 

Every strategy that we talk about has been researched and studied, empirically proven, published in scientific journals. 

We aren't making up anything here; we're basing it all on our years of academia and professional work in the field of behavior.  

So even if sometimes our strategies might seem like there is no way that they will work, we assure you that if they are executed correctly and consistently, you will start to see behavior change.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published