Parenting with a PhD: Tantrums

By: Kristen Berthiaume

Where is your Tantrum Hot Spot?  You know, the place you go regularly even though it’s guaranteed to cause a meltdown (or several)?  Our is Target.  It probably has something to do with all the red.  Or the giant bullseye logo.  You’d think I’d stop going but…it’s Target.

Most of us are tempted to do whatever it takes to make the tantrum stop: cry, beg, threaten, toss in candy and take cover.  Yes, our inner voice reminds us that giving in will make things worse but, let’s face it, that inner voice is completely obliterated by the yelling, screaming voice of the little person in your shopping cart.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make tantrums less likely wherever you go:

Warn your kid.
You’re thinking, “After school, we’ll make a quick grocery run and be home in time to make a healthy dinner.”  Your child is thinking, “After school, I’ll sit on the couch leisurely eating Popsicles and watching the entirety of the Disney Channel line-up until well past my bedtime.”  As unlikely as your kid’s plan is, he’s still going to be frustrated when his expectations are violated.  A quick mention of the grocery run before you drop him off may be enough to keep the peace.  When you get to your destination, there’s more prep to be done.  Let your child know exactly what you will and will not be doing while you’re there.  “We’re here to buy groceries for dinner.  We are not eating M&Ms for dinner.  We will not be buying M&Ms.”  Also, give your child a heads up about expected behavior and consequences.  “We’re going to see Cars 2.  We’ll buy popcorn but no candy.  We won’t be able to go into the theater if you’re screaming because you can’t have candy.”

Always be prepared.
Whether or not you were a Girl Scout, this should be your Mommy Motto.  You know how you feel and act (and how you wish you could act) when you’re hungry or tired.  Kids, especially young kids, have even fewer resources for managing these feelings and are likely to meltdown when basic needs haven’t been met.  Keeping snacks on hand will help to stave off some tantrums.  If you have reason to think your child is more tired than usual (i.e., he stayed up all night eating Popsicles…), minimize the demands you’re placing on him.  Most errands can wait until he’s in a more cooperative state.

Skip the teaching.

You’ve heard of teachable moments?  This isn’t one.  A tantrum is not the time to question your child about her behavior or suggest solutions.  She isn’t going to hear anything you say and certainly won’t remember it.  You’ll have time later when you’re home and everyone is calm to talk about what happened and how to avoid it.  A tantrum needs to be contained quickly before it escalates.  Find a private bathroom or go out to the car for a cool-down period.  Use that time to calm yourself down so you can be most helpful to your child.  Give her space and quiet to get calm.  Don’t coddle, don’t nag, don’t touch (unless it’s for safety reasons).  Give it ten minutes.  If the tantrum isn’t over by then…

Be ready to leave.
If you can’t contain the tantrum, you’ll just need to go.  Yes, it’s inconvenient.  Yes, it may mean returning the next day, leaving a full cart of groceries, making someone else angry.  But, it’s a far better choice than giving in to your child’s demands to stop the tantrum.

The bottom line: Unless you are incredibly lucky, your child will have tantrums.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Later, work together with your child to think of ways to avoid future tantrums.  Whatever you do, stick to the rules and expectations you set up ahead of time and avoid rewarding the tantrum in any way.

About this column:
There are many, many different parenting techniques out there.  Some will work with your children, some will fail miserably.  Chances are, I’ve never met your kid.  I have, however, met a whole lot of other kids, some of them even more hard-headed, whiny, nervous, oppositional, silly, sad, angry, and/or lonely than your kid.  After some trial-and-error, something has worked with these kids and, hopefully, I’ll have ideas for yours, too.

So, you’ve got questions – don’t we all.  Send them my way and I’ll tell you what I can:  If your question is featured, your personal information will be kept confidential.  Put “Birmingham Mommy” in the subject line and ask away.  Next month’s topic: Social Issues.

What if I need more help?
No matter how fantastic a parent you are, some child behaviors are extremely challenging.  This column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy.  If you feel like you’re doing the best you can and still aren’t managing your child’s behavior, it may be time to bring in a professional.  Or two.  Or a whole team of professionals.  Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician and get a referral for therapy from there.  I’ll also provide you with local resources in this column so you’ll know where to go when you’re being driven crazy.

Kristen S. Berthiaume, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Kristen Berthiaume is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates. She obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky.  She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center.

She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues:
learning disorders
social skill deficits
organizational problems
behavioral difficulties

She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy..  Her other day job is as mom to her four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.

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