How to stop a tantrum without candy (and produce a pleasant person in the process)

You may have seen a child throwing a tantrum in a restaurant and asked the person next to you, “Why doesn’t that mom just take her kid outside? He’s making a scene!” Maybe he wanted the chicken nuggets and got sushi. Maybe he wanted chocolate milk and got regular milk. Who knows? The important thing is that your romantic dinner date has now been interrupted. So again, why won’t that mom just take that obnoxious child outside already?!

If you are a parent, you may be reading this and thinking, “Hey! I’ve been there before, and sometimes there’s just nothing I can do! My son just won’t let me have a meal at a restaurant in peace unless he gets his way.” Or, you may be thinking, “Even if I take him outside, when we come back in he’s just going to start screaming again if I don’t give him what he wants. There’s no winning with this kid!”

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, read on for some thoughts on how your child may be trying to train you, and how a shift in parenting style can minimize the frequency of these situations in the future.

Let’s first take a look at a simple example to illustrate how NOT to encourage positive behavior from your children in public. I was recently in the checkout line at a grocery store and there was a family of four in front of me. The parents, a grandmother, and a young girl of about 3 or 4. The girl, seated in the shopping cart, initially was calm and quiet in her request for some M&Ms candy. The parents said “No” and the girl was obviously displeased with this answer.

The girl then began to rapidly escalate her behavior from quietly asking for the candy to whining and eventually crying about not getting her way. Out of apparent embarrassment and a desire to quickly quiet their daughter, the parents said, “Fine. Just be quiet,” and put the M&Ms on the checkout conveyor belt. I cringed inside knowing the potential long term impact of their actions.

Anyone want to guess what this girl is going to do the next time she is in the checkout line? You guessed it: Cry for more M&Ms. If the parents continue to avoid temporary pain/embarrassment, what do you suppose the long term effect will be? What might happen when the girl is 16 and she wants to stay out several hours past her bedtime with her boyfriend the night before taking her SATs? How much power/authority will her parents have at that point to impact her behavior?

Sadly, the pain-avoidance behavior of these parents will have gradually stripped them of vital parental influence. They will have lost the power struggle via surrender. They did not establish themselves as authorities in their daughter’s life early on and consistently throughout her childhood/adolescence.

So what is a parent to do in this type of situation? Should you just let your son scream for an hour in the restaurant, disrupting the meals of dozens of other patrons? Should you buy the M&Ms but tell your daughter she has to wait until she is in the car to eat them?

There are clearly many ways for frustrated parents to respond that are potentially unhelpful. Fortunately there are also several responses that can be helpful and encourage prosocial, cooperative, desired behaviors. While there is no magic cure, no one thing you can do in all situations, there are ways to approach your child that may improve their behavior over time.

  • Keep calm (responding when your blood pressure is raised and the primitive, emotional part of your brain is activated will all but ensure that your response will not be optimal from a long-term change perspective)
  • If the situation permits, ignoring an unwanted behavior until it extinguishes (stops) on its own is preferable. I know this is likely an unreasonable strategy in many public settings, so please read on!
  • Stop doing what you are doing and focus completely on your child during this confrontation
  • Make eye contact by leaning/kneeling down to the child’s level. This reduces the physical intimidation factor and demonstrates respect (give respect to earn respect- modeling is an important part of their social education). This also increases the odds that your child is actually paying attention to you when you speak.
  • Establish the desired/expected behavior very specifically (“Taylor, I need you to sit quietly while we are in the restaurant.” or “We are not buying any candy today, Avery. Please sit down in the cart and use your inside voice.”)
  • Don’t be afraid to say “No.” to your child. They will hear this word often in life, and they need to be emotionally prepared to handle disappointment. This starts with you, and you need to get comfortable with their discomfort. (You should also get used to hearing them say No, as the toddler and teen years will be filled with many No’s from both sides!)
  • Respond to emotional outbursts with logic and consistency. This should, over time, demonstrate to the child that tantrums will not automatically result in their desired outcomes of excessive attention and getting their way.
  • If necessary (if the above steps do not initially produce the desired behavior), temporarily leave the situation, repeat the above steps, and request a commitment of compliance (“Are you going to talk nicely to your brother at the dinner table?”). Then head back inside and give it a go.
  • In all steps above, avoid bribing your child (If you do _____ I’ll give you ___). Establishing a reward for positive/desired behavior ahead of time can be useful, but setting it up after the child begins fussing can reward the fussing, rather than the desired behavior.
  • If everything above fails, it may be necessary to leave the situation permanently (at least for that day). Reevaluate whether your child was emotionally/ behaviorally/ cognitively ready to participate in the situation. Here it is useful to consider what kind of restaurant a 2, 5, 10, or 17 year old may be ready for. If we set a child up for failure in an overly demanding environment we have let them down. They have not failed us by simply acting in ways that are developmentally typical for their age. Expectations need to be appropriate.

There are obviously more steps that can be taken and many nuances to what you can do in the unlimited variety of complex situations in which your child (whether 6 or 16) may throw a tantrum. The above steps are a good starting place for most basic situations and can be useful even in some more complex settings.

Unfortunately there will likely be temporary sacrifices you end up making, such as avoiding a favorite restaurant, going to the movies, concerts, etc. while your child is not adequately prepared to accompany you. However, by consistently following through on the above steps you can give your child a fighting chance at being a respectful, reasonable, logic- and consequences-driven adult. With practice for them, and much patience from you, they may make progress much faster than you’d think!

Photo credit: Mindaugas Danys; “scream and shout”, used under Creative Commons limited license

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