In my previous post on Tantrums, (https://educatewithtoys.wordpress.com/2012/07/02/tactics-for-tantrum-time/) I wrote how to classify tantrums into three categories. The toddler’s tantrum is a normal, passing phase in the child’s development. The manipulative tantrum is a flashing light, indicating that the home’s discipline needs tweaking. The frustration-triggered tantrum is a reaction to an emotional overload, caused by a lack-of skill or need.
In this post, I will zoom in on the Frustration-Triggered Tantrum, explore its causes and learn prevention techniques.
When tantrums occur frequently, we cannot be passive reactors to this recurring problem. We have to be proactive problem solvers and get to the root of it.
Think logically! As unpleasant as the tantrum is for the parent, it is so much more unpleasant for the child. If so, a tantrum has to be “worthwhile” for the child. It must fill a function. And that function deserves to be reckoned with, since it is playing such a major role in the child’s behavior.
Consequently, if you want to eliminate the explosion, you must first pinpoint the function it serves. Why it is happening is far more important than what is happening. Then, you can diagnose and treat the cause, rather than dealing with the symptoms.) As an aside, if you squelch the tantrum without solving the underlying issue, the problem will crop up in some other form…)
To get to the root of your child’s problem, you have to know your ABC’s. A is for Antecedents, the triggers preceding the behavior. B is for Behavior, the behavior itself. C is for the Consequences following the behavior. Simply said, analyze the before, during and after of the tantrum.
Antecedent – take a step back. Recall the tantrum’s trigger. Try to analyze why this touched your child’s sore spot. Common antecedent triggers include:
- Demands which exceed capability, often because of lack of skill (a challenging school project.)
- Threats to self-image, which cause shame or embarrassment, losing a game, getting teased, or being outdone by a younger sibling.
- Biological triggers – hunger, fatigue or illness.
- Sensory overload-too much noise, too large of a crowd or even too many bright lights.
- Lack of structure; without clear instruction and structure, children can become confused.
- Social struggles, which cause the child to feel like an outcast.
- Being made to wait.
- Unmet wishes for attention, others refuse to play with him, or jealousy.
Behavior – describe the behavior in detail. Use concrete terms.
Consequences – follow the tantrum trail and examine the aftershocks.
Consider whether the behavior resulted in:
- Avoiding a situation
- Getting attention
- Getting some desired object
- Self-pleasure or soothing through repetitive behaviors; these calm the child, but often upset others.
- Venting of frustration, especially when the child’s behavior has no clear benefit, such as when the child destroys his own half-completed project in frustration.
Sometimes, recurring tantrums are not caused by underlying triggers, but rather as a matter of habit. The child may simply be used to getting his way through yelling; he does not know a better way to express himself. Consequences reveal if the meltdown is fueled by manipulation or frustration. Usually, the manipulative tantrum allows the child to “get his way” or avoid the undesirable situation. For example, did the whining child bargain his way out of doing his duties? Did the attention-seeking “tantrummer” steal the show with his shenanigans and get Mom’s undivided attention at the wrong time? Did the sulking teenager cause Mom to cave in and buy the latest________? And even if the consequence led to punishment, did the child learn from his mistakes?
Once you have diagnosed both the cause and symptoms, you need a preventive plan. You already know what your child needs; now you need to figure out what your child needs you to do to help him fill those needs.
The first thing you want to do is modify the triggers. You want to make it easy for your child not to explode. You want to time situations right and avoid setting off an overly exhausted, hungry or sick child. You want to make appropriate demands, sometimes even adjusting expectations and accepting limitations. Can your child’s teacher allow him to complete 5 of the 25 math homework problems? Can you ask your child to clean up the playroom for ten minutes, instead of until it is entirely organized? You want to reduce sensory stimulant triggers, such as too much noise, light, touch, etc. You might even want to give visual supports and provide graphic instruction, guiding your child through potentially challenging scenarios.
Next, you want to teach the skills to overcome the trigger. Skills can be learned – when taught correctly. Academic challenges, social difficulties and even emotional regulation abilities are almost always surmountable. Is it a general concept, such as problem solving, perspective taking or venting in an acceptable manner? Or is it a specific skill? Do you know how to teach the skill? Does your child need professional intervention? Indeed, your child can learn how to express himself in a more constructive way if taught how to replace negative behaviors with positive ones.
Finally, you want to implement a reward or loss system, encouraging your child to make the extra effort and overcome his challenge. Only use a loss system if the triggering situation has been modified to a manageable-sized challenge, the child learned the skills to deal with the situation in a better way, and was reminded to engage in proper behavior but still chose the negative behavior.
In addition, you might consider biological and physical strategies, such as dietary changes, exercise or even medication therapy.
The following scenario depicts a mother solving a typical challenge by using ABC’s and implementing a preventive plan.
When Steve’s mom was called down to school for a meeting, she know that Steve was in for it. She had already spoken to the teacher several times on the phone regarding Steve’s frequent altercations during recess. She knew the teacher had already penalized him with lost recess, and she had also tried implementing several consequences of her own. Nothing seemed to be working. Now that she had to come down to school, she knew this was serious business.
She already filled in the C’s – lost recess, different created consequences and lots of criticism. She wanted more information about the behavior and antecedents. At the meeting, she began asking the teacher for more specifics of unacceptable recess time behavior. The teacher said he had hit, kicked and pushed other children during recess. She asked for a description of the most recent flare-up, and the teacher said that yesterday he had pushed a boy.
Then, she began zooming in on the antecedents. She asked, “What happened before Steve pushed?” The teacher had no idea. She tried questioning classmates. They answered, “Nothing; he just pushed him.” She even asked Steve, but Steve denied pushing, although everyone else saw him do just that.
With no concrete trigger data, she decided to do some real sleuthing and come down to the schoolyard for some observation. She watched how Steve approached two boys playing ball and said, “Can I play?” The boys answered, “No, we just started.” Steve squinted his eyes and lightly shoved one of the boys.
She approached Steve and asked why he did that. He muttered, “Because they hate me and won’t let me play.” This spoke volumes about Steve’s distorted perception of his classmates’ messages, and his ensuing misbehavior. He surmised that peers who did not allow him to play dislike him. Really, all they were trying to say was that he has to wait to play with the winner.
As she continued watching him to see whether her hunch was accurate, she noticed time and again that whenever Steve was told that he cannot join an already stated game, he would push, punch or hit. She also saw that whenever he disagreed when told he was out during a game, the disagreement led to a physical fighting match.
Sometimes, these flare-ups landed Steve in trouble; other times, they went unnoticed. Never did his outburst get his peers to take his side. In fact, they seemed to be increasingly wary of him and tried to steer clear. He never really seemed to be getting any real payoff. Still, these two perceptions of social rejection and social injustice crept under his skin and got the better of him. She knew that she did not need to penalize him more since the consequences he had received were not working. She would need to brainstorm for a preventive plan. Steve’s mother wanted him to learn how to overcome the triggers and respond in a more positive way. Specifically, she wanted him to have friends to play with, and understand that “waiting for a turn” was not a personal rejection. She also wanted him to learn how to accept being out even when he thought he should be in. First, she tried to modify the triggers. She wanted him to have a regular playmate during recess. So she asked the teacher to encourage structured play and ensure that Steve was invited to join. She also gave him games and balls to bring to recess, so that he would be initiating the game, rather than depending on joining others’ ongoing activities.
Next, she aimed to give him skills to deal with the triggers. She sat Steve down and explained to him that these rejections were not personal, but rather rules of fair play. She showed him how boys who sometimes did not allow him to play initially later invited him into another round of the game. She also discussed how he could find another partner while waiting for the game he really wanted.
Finally, she explained that fighting about questionable outs caused him to lose playing time, and Steve agreed that he preferred to use recess time productively rather than waste it arguing. She also reminded him that he would be a more popular playmate if he would argue less often.
She summarized both of these skills on a cue card to reinforce the skills. She asked the teacher to review this card with him before recess. She also told the teacher about the particulars of the discussion and asked him to remind Steve of the various highlights when Steve looked like he was heading toward a meltdown.
As far as implementing a reward or loss system, she decided to keep the school’s consequence system in place and added a reward system of her own, promising Steve a trip to the park if he would control himself for one week. One month later, the teacher called Steve’s mother with good news. Steve had overcome another hurdle in his path to growing up.
Remember: If a child has been prepared for a challenge and is taught coping skills for that particular situation, then we can try to stand firm and push his resistance. If children do not have the skills to cope with a challenging task, then we should avoid the power struggle.