Tag Archives: tantrums

Teaching Your Inflexible Child Flexibility

imagesWhat are your three main goals when interacting with your inflexible child? To get your child (A) to obey, (B) to learn, and (C) to succeed.

Some people mistakenly think that (A) maintaining obedience and adult authority is the primary goal. However, once we realize that the inflexible child misbehaves not out of bad will, but rather poor skill, we understand that enforcing adult authority is not the primary way to reach the child.

Rather, our primary goal is (B) to teach our child the skills of flexibility and frustration tolerance. This goes to the root of the problem and eventually avoids recurring situations. (Studies show that without this specialized training, these negative patterns usually continue throughout life.)

In order to achieve this goal, we need to aim for (C) setting the stage for the child’s success by creating a user-friendly environment. Accepting and adapting to the child’s limitations reduces his frustration levels and conserves his energy for the more important issues.

Still, all three goals are important objectives which must be mastered and implemented at different times, for different situations.

Try grouping all your child’s behaviors into three baskets. Basket A holds all the non-negotiable behaviors that are worth the meltdown price. When your child displays these behaviors, you aim for Goal (A): maintaining adult authority. Basket B is for behaviors that are important, but not important enough that they call for a tantrum. In these situations, you turn to Goal (B): teaching your child flexibility and frustration tolerance. Basket C is for behaviors that are not even worth mentioning anymore. These call for Goal (C): accepting your child’s limitations, so he can succeed.

Now, let’s take a closer look inside each basket.

Basket A: Basket A situations do not teach your child how to think during frustration, but rather reinforce your parental authority. Safety is an example of a Basket A case. What else is in Basket A? Something that passes the “Basket A Litmus Test.”

1. The issue is “worth” the tantrum

2. Your child is capable of following through on a fairly consistent basis

3. You are willing and able to enforce it.

As soon as you say “No,” “You must not,” “This is non-negotiable,” your child knows that you’re in Basket A.

Of course, you try to create a user-friendly environment (Basket C) and remove many stumbling blocks, so that Basket A situations don’t crop up too often. You also limit Basket A to behaviors that truly pass the litmus test, rather than how much you wish the behavior would qualify. You want to limit the amount of Basket A cases, because reducing meltdowns is a very high priority in parenting. This preserves your relationship and saves your clout for the most important issues at hand.

Limiting your absolute no’s is not shortchanging your parental power, but exchanging it for a more productive power.

Basket B: Basket B is the most important basket, because its practical lessons are so far-reaching and life-altering. In Basket B, you reach out to the child standing out the crossroads, just as his brain is about to lock and imprison him into meltdown mode. At this twilight moment, just before his logic becomes paralyzed, you grab onto him and help him think logically. You teach him to stay calm, despite the conflict, and think logically, despite his raging emotions.

How? By inviting him to brainstorm together with you. Your child is lacking frustration tolerance and flexibility skills. Basket B’s open respectful dialogue teaches him an appropriate way to express frustration, while problem-solving for a mutually-beneficial solution trains him to become more flexible.

Understandably, your child, who has until now exploded to every slight irregularity will not switch modes and become a great negotiator. However, when you model positive problem-solving and clearly outline acceptable modes of communication (speak in a reasonable tone of voice, be respectful…,) you teach him how to express himself in a healthier way. You may want to practice a trial run with your child during calmer moments when your child is more coherent. Also, during initial problem-solving sessions, you might need to jumpstart him with several suggestions until he learns how to view a situation in a multi-dimensional way.

If you think that discussion and negotiation compromise your parental authority, think again. This is where your child learns about give-and-take, expressing frustration in a respectful way, taking another’s perspective, viewing situations multi-dimensionally and working cooperatively to find mutually-satisfactory solutions.

How do you teach your child? By modeling the good behaviors. You may want to practice with your child at calmer moments and initially jumpstart your child by providing suggestions.

How does your child know you’re in Basket B? Firstly, you empathize. “I know you are frustrated about this.” When you accept your child’s feelings, your child perceives you as an advocate, rather than an adversary. Then, you invite him to problem-solve with you by saying something like, “Let’s work this out together.”  You may need to clarify things by summarizing the disagreement, so you are all on the same page. “John, you want to play Clics, which is a great idea, and your sister wants to play outside, also a great idea. Let’s think how we can work this out.” At times, when appropriate, you can even invite siblings to the brainstorming sessions – provided that they can contribute in a respectful manner.

Basket B is hard work. And it’s not necessarily guaranteed success at first try. Still, each problem-solving session is one more lesson in frustration-tolerance and flexibility, and hopefully, one step closer to a healthier lifelong attitude.

Basket C: Basket C is the fullest basket – and it’s stuffed with behaviors that you are going to ignore, at least for now. There are things that you are not even going to mention, such as picky eating habits or sloppy bedrooms. And there are situations you will avoid at all costs, such as overcrowded stores and late nights-out. This is because Basket C accepts your child for who he is right now, so that he can experience success despite his limitations.

Is Basket C about defeat? Depends. If you decided that a behavior is not worth the sweat and never mentioned anything about it, then you have willfully ignored it; that’s control. If, however, your child tantrumed so long and hard over a Basket A behavior that you caved in, then you’ve lost a battle.

So, think long and hard before making your classifications. After all, before the action starts, you pull the strings. But once you set the ball rolling, “No! That is not allowed,” “That must be frustrating. How can we figure out a way to work it out?” or silence, you have done yours and must hope that your child is capable of living up to your expectations.

The good part of the Basket approach is that now, you are the primary decision-maker over whether or not a tantrum will ensue. You no longer fear the possibility of meltdowns. You calmly navigate through each situation, confident that you will know how to respond in any situation. This assured calmness transfers to your child and enforces your authority and your child’s peace of mind.

To summarize, with the Basket approach, you stand in for the rational part of your child’s brain just as the thoughts are about to blur, and you turn the dial however you see fit. You help the child walk over the crossroads, giving him the skills he has yet to master. You teach him to think logically while frustrated, identify the frustration’s trigger, and explore various options and their potential outcomes. You train him to see the “big picture,” to delay gratification and to become more flexible.

Will you always have to do this? Hopefully not. With enough practice, you aim to hand the reigns over to your child one day.  But for today, you aim for greater skill, rather than only greater submission.

Basket-Weavers, Beware!

  • Watch your wording carefully, so that your child knows which basket you’re in. Some parents mistakenly use Basket A terminology when they would like to be in Baskets B or C, or vice versa. Then, your child is not on the same playing field as you. You wonder why he’s throwing a fit, but fail to realize that you told him that you will not back down on this one.
  • Don’t under do Basket B by overdoing Basket C and ignoring too many behaviors. Basket B is your main lesson plan book! You want plenty of practice examples to improve your child’s skills.
  • Do not use Basket B as a last resort. If you want to give your child brainstorming power, start with it right away – when it’s your decision to make and your child has not yet entered tantrum brain lock stage.  When brainstorming is an afterthought, your child feels that he just earned a concession over here.
  • Make sure you really are open to new suggestions. Model flexibility and compromise.
  • Sometimes, you also may do Basket B on general situations that are not running smoothly, such as dinner table behavior or bedtime routines, that you would like to brainstorm. Broach these scenarios at a calm time and problem-solve for the future.

SIDEBAR: When a child is lacking the necessary skills to meet a situation’s cognitive demands, he cannot respond adaptively. This causes challenging episodes. To avoid these situations, empower your child with skills.


Tactics For Tantrum Time – Causes & Prevention Techniques

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.
  • Anxiety

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.

Tactics For Tantrum Time

  • “David,” you call your two-year-old, “time to come inside.” Before you know it, David is lying in a vertical position, his little feet kicking up and down, and his body is convulsing from his hysterics. “Don’t wanna go inside,” he hollers…
  • You’ve enjoyed a pleasant shopping trip with your seven-year-old. You’re just about ready to check out when your daughter notices a bar of chocolate, strategically placed at seven-year-old eye level. “I’ve already bought other sweets. We’re not buying this now,” you say. She tries cajoling, pleading, negotiating… You remain pleasant, but persistent. And then, her voice is escalating, the tears are cascading down her cheeks, bystanders’ heads are swiveling in your direction, you cheeks are burning, and you would give a million dollars to be anywhere, but here.
  • Your fourth grader has spent the past two hours sitting at the kitchen table, attempting to complete the fifteen math word problems, due the next day. She’s grumbling throughout. Then, she erupts into tears and says, “I’m just not doing it. I’m dumb, and I can’t, and I don’t care.” You stand there, half-wishing that all your maternal sympathy could translate into some concrete assistance for your precious child, half-hoping that she will somehow grab hold of her control.

It is no secret that dealing with tantrums is one of the least beloved parenting responsibilities. On the one hand, we all know our call of duty in time of tantrum. Do not become enmeshed in a power struggle, and try not to teach your child that tantrums are an acceptable way of attaining his goals. Rather, keep to your stance and calmly enforce discipline. On the other hand, this duty is almost impossible, for it requires you to gain the cooperation of a thrashing, shrieking child.

If we understand the makeup of a tantrum, then we can understand why rationale does not prevail in time of tantrum. All humans react when they feel threatened with an intense emotion. When a person perceives a potentially frightening situation, it seems as if the emotion center has taken over the reasoning part of the brain, which makes it difficult to access the person’s sense of logic. During this “flight, fright or freeze phase,” meltdowns can occur, since the planning and reasoning part of the brain is “hijacked.” For the same reason, it is pointless to try to talk logically and reason with someone experiencing a meltdown… he is not acting rationally right now.

When these “out-of-control emotions” seize your child, and logic and punishments stop working, your best bet is to first deescalate the meltdown. Depending on the situation, you can try:

Distraction: Find something that interests your child to help him focus on something other than his extreme frustration.

WARNING! Do not use distraction for manipulative tantrums. If you child learns that he does not have to do his chores after a meltdown, he will continue to pull this trick on you.

Use distraction to calm your child and help him move on to the next step, NOT as a reward for the tantrum.

Eventually, you would like your child to learn how to self-soothe. Therefore, avoid over-using distraction.

Humor: Show him the absurdity of this situation to diffuse the tension.

Validation: Empathize with his feelings, so he feels understood. “I understand how much you wanted to win. I know it was a big letdown for you.” Or “I know how hard it is to wait patiently for something you really want.”

Security Boosting: Tightly wrap your two arms around your child to make him feel relaxed and secure in your embrace.

Secret Signals: Pre-plan a secret sign, so you can signal to your child when you see a tantrum brewing. This will enable him to catch himself before it erupts full-scale.

The Comfort Zone: Create a home base of a safe, comforting place where the child can unwind when upset.

While these techniques are wonderful lifesavers, they should be just that; lifesavers, used in time of emergency. Depend on them for the inevitable tantrum that you could not predict or prevent.

However, the very best method of dealing with tantrums is to avoid them. The million dollar question is: HOW?

Before we answer, let us explore three common tantrum variations, because each one calls for its own strategy.

Some tantrums are age-appropriate, juvenile emotional immaturity. Young children’s physical and intellectual capabilities do not match up with their emotional abilities. In addition, toddlers and preschoolers lack self-control. This results in the “terrible two’s” phase of frequent tantrums. The scenario of the two-year-old who does not want to come inside is a classic example of an age-appropriate tantrum. As a parent, realize that this phase will pass soon. Attempt to avoid boxing your child into tantrum-prone situations. And when they do erupt, take a deep breath, flex your muscles, and remember that you are dealing with a normal child who is not mature enough to know better ways of expressing frustration.

Other tantrums are manipulative tactics, such as the scenario of the seven-year-old demanding candy. Sometimes, these tantrums may even take on different forms, such as sulking, balking or giving the silent treatment. When these tantrums occur frequently, carefully analyze the procedures and discipline routines in your home. Make sure you are consistent in your demands and follow through with your words and actions. View these meltdowns as warning signals, indicating that discipline in your home may need some tweaking.

But other tantrums, such as the scenario depicting the child who is exasperated because of his math homework, are not premeditated, controlling ploys to subterfuge your parental authority. Rather, they are simply an expression of extreme frustration, an escalating negative emotional reaction. They stem from a deficiency in the child. As a parent, try to pinpoint where the weakness first occurred. Then, give your child the skills to compensate for his deficiency or teach him how to vent in a more acceptable manner.

How can we plan ahead to minimize tantrums?

  1. Accept your child for who he is with love. He is a unique individual with his own temperament, strengths, shortcomings and limitations. This will enable you to create realistic expectations for your child, Unrealistic expectations lead to excessive demands, in both performance and behavior, which the child cannot fulfill. This causes disappointment, frustration and negativity, which often culminates in a meltdown.

Accepting your child helps you control your own temper, because you realize that it’s okay for your child to have imperfect behaviors or limited capabilities. These inadequacies are not a reflection of your incompetence or a threat to your parenting abilities. They are attributes, given to your child by God. Once you learn to control your own frustration, you can help your child control his.

When you accept your child, you create an environment in which the child feels competent, not criticized. You make realistic demands. Thereby, you avoid ensnaring your child in the net of “learned helplessness.” When demands are constantly above the child’s limitations, the deep frustration stemming from repeated failure teaches the child that success is not within his control, so he “learns helplessness” and gives up quickly. This habit persists even when circumstances are within the child’s control. Repeated frustration and failure fuel tantrums.

Conversely, realistic demands create an environment in which the child feels confident that he can succeed. When you modify difficult tasks to a more manageable-size, you exercise your child’s muscles, without straining them to the point that your child explodes. For example, if your child has weak muscles, encourage him to dress himself, but agree to button his shirt to give him just the right amount of fine motor muscle strengthening or if you know your child’s equilibrium is threatened by the noise of too many guests, invite one friend at a time for a play date.

  1. Teach your child to self-soothe. Your child will inevitably bump into frustrating situations in life. You want him to be able to respond in a healthy way. This emotional maturity does not necessarily develop on its own. Teach your child how to respond properly. At a calm time, site down with your child and discuss what helps him calm down. Explore options such as deep breathing, drawing, walking, sucking on ice, etc. Practice these calming techniques, so that your child will be able to put them into action in times of stress. Try using visualization to help your child picture himself in tough situations and visualize himself responding calmly. Also, train your child to strategize and problem solve effectively. This will enable him to cope independently and positively.
  2. When meltdowns occur frequently, explore common threads. Assess if you can predict the challenging behavior, try to zoom in on the trigger, and analyze the patterns of the rest of the family’s reaction. Is a family member enabling the problem? Once you discover an emerging pattern, you can learn to predict meltdowns and even develop a plan to prevent tantrums.
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