Don’t give in to your child’s tantrums

You need not feel helpless when your child misbehaves. These simple behavioural techniques can come to your rescue

Research says that most children behave in a particular way only because it is self rewarding to them. The rewards they get can be of various types—getting attention, power, recognition, money, release from assigned duties, or simple physical pleasure. And misbehaviour or age-inappropriate behaviour is no exception. Such behaviours if not corrected immediately, become second nature.

Basically, unacceptable behaviours can be grouped as:

  • Physical [breaking toys, hitting sibling]
  • Verbal [yelling, teasing, using unacceptable words]
  • Non-compliance [not obeying rules, not following instructions, not doing a requested chore].

The secret behind

According to Dr Rudolph Dreikurs [author, A Parent’s Guide to Child Discipline] children misbehave because they want to achieve one of the four goals.

To correct their behaviour, it is important to find out what the goal.

When children do this... ...their probable goal is
Stops a behaviour but then repeats it. Attention seeking
Refuses to stop and increases the misbehaviour Seeking power
Becomes violent or hostile Seeking revenge
Refuses to cooperate, participate, or interact Displaying inadequacy

What you can do

When the child seeks attention

Most parents correct their children when they wrong. And rightfully so. And praise their children lavishly when the child achieves a charted goal like getting good grades in school. But when it comes to giving positive attention casually or for displaying good behaviour many parents hardly make a remark or tell the child that they are happy for behaving well.

It is very rare for us to say, “Mayur, I am happy that you behaved well at Neha’s party. You did not shout, fight or cry. You shared with everyone. I am very happy. This is how I want you to behave in any party.”

We sorely lack in that kind of communication. This creates the need to do something negative so as to get the parent’s attention, which they eventually do get. This is negative attention-seeking.

If parents give positive attention often, simply because the child has done something nice, no matter how small or trivial, it goes a long way in suppressing the urge to indulge in negative behaviour for the sake of attention. They stop repeating a negative behaviour, if they perceive that it is easy to get attention by behaving well.

When the child seeks power

All parents know what it is to be at the beck and call of a new-born. All their basic needs get fulfilled with a simple cry, which is a form of commanding power. In the following years, children get habituated to being in this ‘powerful’ role. They want to be allowed to do what they want.

However, by the age of two, it becomes important to clearly start setting boundaries so that children understand what is permissible behaviour. At times it is important to show them that you are the boss. Like in Neel’s case. Neel screams his lungs out if things don’t go his way. His parents give in just to stop him. Neel can disciplined by sustained and patient efforts. Here’s what you can do:

  • If the demand is not too unreasonable, fulfil it the first time. This will make her understand that she does not always need to yell to get her way. But beware of being a ‘No’ parent—one who says ‘No’ just for the sake of it.
  • If the request is unreasonable explain to her why you cannot fulfil it. Try linking the cause and the effect.
  • If an explanation would be beyond her, firmly state that you won’t give in even if she yells. And stick to it. Don’t give in because you cannot bear the screams or are embarrassed. Just bear with it. In the long run, it pays off.
  • After the tantrum is over, explain to her that this kind of behaviour will not get her what she wants. Instead, if she asks politely, you may agree to reasonable demands.
  • Sometimes to break the cycle, you need to ignore the behaviour. To do that, divert her attention.

When the child seeks revenge

Children do not like to be reprimanded and thus may become violent. In such cases, it is important to keep your calm. Remember that the child is watching you closely and if you lose your balance and get riled up, the situation is only going to worsen. It needs immense self-control but just focus on helping the child by protecting her from getting hurt. Later, when the outburst has ended, explain to her that this is not the correct thing to indulge in. Be gentle, but absolutely firm at the same time.

Whenever the vindictive behaviour returns, reiterate that this is unacceptable; inconsistent disciplining is more dangerous than no disciplining, as it confuses the child. If your child is revengeful or vindictive, check whether he is learning it from you, your spouse or some one else.

When the child displays inadequacy

When children say they are unable to complete a task, check if you are fuelling the sense of inadequacy in any way. Many parents do the task because it saves a lot of time. I know of a parent who helped her son tie his shoe laces till he was in the 10th grade. He has now moved to wearing velcro shoes as he never learnt this skill.

Are you such a parent? And if the answer is yes, stop. Don’t jeopardise your child’s growth and development. Teach them age-appropriate skills, even if it takes time.

Usually, children feel inadequate on two accounts: genuine inability to do a task; wanting to shirk responsiblities. In the first case, help and guide your child through the activity. Appreciate small achievements to boost self-esteem. But if children are using inability as an excuse to shirk responsibility, be firm. Don’t be quick to put their timetable in the bag, if they proclaim that they cannot do it. Also, do not go to the other extreme. The golden mean is to make it compulsory that you will help provided they accompanies you throughout the task.

Give them small responsibilities time and again and reward them with praise. Eventually they will develop a sense of responsibility.

Parenting is a challenging job. Your limits will be tested all the time. Do not treat this job lightly and invest time in it. You will definitely reap its benefits in the long run.

This was first published in the February 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Shital Ravi is the director and founder member of Disha Counseling Center, which is a mental health setup in Mumbai. She has been practicing as a psychologist for the past 12 years and likes to work with children, adolescents and parents.

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