By Dr. Joseph Kahn, MercyKids president
Children between the ages of 1 and 5 have poorly developed coping skills and are prone to have tantrums. In younger children, tantrums result from not getting their way. In older preschoolers, tantrums are more of a power struggle between the parent and child wishing to assert his or her autonomy and desires.
It’s an age-old question: how can parents prevent tantrums?
Find opportunities to recognize and reward good behaviors. Be aware of your own response to stress, and try to avoid overreacting, yourself. Your child needs to know that it’s OK to be frustrated but not OK to scream, yell and kick every time things don’t go his or her way. Recognize triggers for tantrums. If your child throws a fit when hungry, begin to recognize signs of hunger. Be sure he or she also gets plenty of sleep.
Even if you do your best to avoid tantrums, they will still happen. So then what?
Unless your child is in danger of harming himself or herself or others, leave him or her alone, wait a few minutes and then check on things. Attention reinforces the undesired behavior, so don’t give it. The louder a child yells, the softer you should speak. If this happens in a public place, be ready to remove your child from that location to a quieter spot. It may help to give your child a few minutes to vent and let things get better while you ignore the behavior.
Try creating a diversion. Engage your child in a more positive behavior, while avoiding reinforcing the unwanted behavior. Remember that positive reinforcement of desired behaviors goes a long way to avoiding unwanted ones. Offer an incentive to behave.
If you know you are going to be in a situation in which your child may be bored or more likely to melt down, be proactive. Parents often tell me that they don’t want to bribe their child into acting properly. Think of a reward for good behavior as an incentive (like getting a paycheck for showing up to work every day) rather than a bribe.
We all like to be given incentives and rewarded.