Tantrums are a developmentally appropriate way for a child to protest- to share their strong opinions. Most children should outgrow the tantrum phase once their language and socio-emotional skills develop sufficiently to express themselves in a clear manner.
Sometimes, the tantrums outlives the developmental stage and becomes a standard way for the child to express his frustration. The phase in which the child was to learn how to effectively voice his concerns and learn (age and developmentally appropriate) delay of gratification and frustration tolerance- is squashed in between ebbs and flows of tantrums. The potential to deal with life's frustrations is there, but more like an untapped resource. The child learns quickly that the tone, intensity, and duration of the tantrum are his ammo to win what he wants, though simultaneously losing the affection and approval of his parents.
When parents decide to deal with the tantrums, they generally think that by upping the ante, or becoming stricter, or more punitive, or offering more suggestions, explanations, etc, their child will understand, comply, and avoid the tantrum. I wish it were that easy. What the happens is the opposite. And it's called the extinction burst.
Extinction is the phase when the behavior is not reinforced. Reinforce by definition, means to make the behavior happen again. For example, your child asks for a cookie, you say no, your child whines, cries, tantrums for the cookie, you give the cookie. You have just reinforced the whining, crying, tantruming for the cookie and the child has learned that this method has worked.
When you want to stop your child from using this method, and instead using one that is age appropriate, what will generally happen is the extinction burst. Extinction burst by definition, means that even if you are doing EVERYTHING right, your child's behavior will worsen before it gets any better. It's during this time period, when parents second guess their actions and revert to giving in. Don't despair. The extinction burst is temporary and it will subside, but it takes time, diligence, consistency, and faith on the parent's part.
So, how do you deal with this?
1. Awareness. As the parent, you are the guide in your child's life. Once you become aware of this pattern of behavior from your end and your child's, you can start to make small but meaningful changes.
2. Communicate. Tell your child that you will be doing some things differently and not giving in when he tantrums.
3. Guide. You can't just ignore the tantrum. Your child needs tools. This whole time, the tantrum has been his only effective tool. Problem solve with your child other ways of asking for things, practice delay of gratification, and frustration tolerance. Start of slowly. Remember that your child may be of a certain age, but developmentally, he hasn't had the opportunity to hone in on these skills.
4. Practice with faith. Know that the behaviors have an expected, research proven pattern. You are going for a new ride. Hopefully one that will teach both you and your child how to deal effectively with frustrating situations.
Dr. Eva Benmeleh
I am a licensed clinical child psychologist in Miami . I hope you enjoy the site!
221 West Hallandale Beach Blvd., Suite 202
Hallandale, FL 33009