What to do with a kicking, screaming child

14 June 2014

It’s enough to make a mom desperate; your cute angel becomes a kicking monster and you feel you could scream. Dr Anthony Costandius, a psychologist, and Nikki Bush, an author and expert in the field of creative parenting, give advice on temper tantrums.

What causes temper tantrums?

Bush says tantrums indicate one of the following:

  • - A spoilt or manipulative child who wants their own way at any time in any place.
  • - A child who knows what they want but becomes frustrated because their vocabulary is too small to make their wish known.
  • - A child who feels invisible because their parents are emotionally absent (even when they’re present). To such a child even bad attention – such as from an angry parent – is better than no attention.
  • - A child who imitates immature parental behaviour to get what they want.

“I believe temper tantrums take place only when they’re allowed to and show the situation is out of control,” says Bush. “Either you have lost control and your child is trying to determine where the boundary is, or your child has lost control and must be shown where the boundary is and that there is a better way to communicate his needs.”

Dr Costandius says some parents teach their children to have tantrums because they yield to their child’s demands as soon as they become upset. “The child learns that he gets what he wants when he goes crazy.”

Dr Costandius warns children who tend to have tantrums are often sensitive souls who like to feel in control and therefore display more anxiety. “Such children often have anxious parents who are perfectionists, worriers, controllers or rigid and don’t like change. In this case a tantrum indicates the child’s inability to remain in control of his behavior while experiencing an intense emotion.”

Can you prevent tantrums?

Dr Costandius says it’s a challenge to prevent tantrums in younger children (under 12). “Children can’t get perspective on their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. They experience them directly and intensely. If the parent can keep the child calm and have him concentrate on the actual problem, they can prevent a tantrum. But usually, especially in children under six, the tantrum takes place before the parent can manage that,” says Dr Costandius.

Bush believes parents must be present and give more attention to their children. “Try to figure out what their needs are so you can pre-empt a tantrum,” she says. “Often children are tired, hungry, thirsty, bored or in need of the right sort of parental attention.” Sometimes all that is needed is some lap time – time with you reading a story for 10 minutes or playing a game with them for 15 minutes when you haven’t seen them all morning. Find a way to help your children understand, nonverbally, that they’re important to you and you’ve taken notice of them.”

According to Bush all people, young or old, want to be noticed; they ask three questions in their unconscious mind: “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Am I important to you?”

“If [children] sense a ‘yes’ to all three questions the likelihood of a tantrum is small. If there’s a ‘no’ to any one of the questions the potential for a tantrum goes up.”

How to handle tantrums

As soon as your child’s behaviour becomes uncontrolled (for example crying, kicking and hitting) they’re so upset they can’t be reasonable, says Dr Costandius. “So any attempts to calm him, bargain, negotiate, threaten, hit or otherwise engage with him to try to make him see sense will be fruitless.”

He suggests a child who’s crying uncontrollably should be sent to their room for a “time out”. “Remember, time out is not a punishment; it represents an opportunity during which the child can regain composure while in a safe situation (his room).”

Dr Costandius suggests that when a child displays uncontrolled behavior (apart from crying) the parent should try to pin them down on the ground. “Once secured he will continue to scream and even swear. The parent now needs to go quiet and regain his own composure while continuing to hold the child down. Once the parent is calm he or she should start to talk softly and say something such as the following, ‘1. I really love you. 2. I don’t like it that you’re (describe the behaviour, for example kicking, screaming or biting). 3. I’m going to hold you down until you’re quiet. 4. Once you’ve calmed down I will let you go and give you time to recover in your room’.”

Dr Costandius says the parent should repeat these four statements until the child has calmed down. “Deal with the issue that caused the tantrum later, about 30 minutes after the tantrum was effectively contained and the child has sufficiently recovered.”

Bush suggests you teach your child they’re welcome to have a tantrum, but only in their room. “Educational psychologist Ken Resnick says a tantrum is a behavioural choice. According to him parents should tell their children, ‘Tantrums mean I want to go to my room and stay there until I want to come out’.” He says your child should be allowed to come out of their room after they’ve apologised. “Children must learn to take responsibility for their behavior and that tantrums are unacceptable family behaviour.”

Is ignoring a tantrum an effective strategy?

“It’s important not to reward negative behaviour with attention (positive or negative),” says Dr Costandius. “By disengaging when the child starts a tantrum you teach him this behavior doesn’t help him further his goals and forces him to exert more control if he wants to achieve his objective.”

But he warns parents should act if children’s behaviour is a threat to them, other people, pets or objects in the house.

According to Bush it helps to ignore the tantrum. “Definitely, especially with the first one. If you get riled they will know they have found your hot button and they will do it again and again.” She recommends you distract a child’s attention by saying something such as, “Come, let’s go . . .’ or, ‘Let’s do . . .’ ”

What about teens?

Bush says the same three questions mentioned earlier also apply to teens. “During any phase of life tantrums happen only if you allow them. The easiest advice against tantrums is to work on yourself and your management strategy.”

According to Dr Costandius younger children’s tantrums are often more physical while teens are verbally destructive. “It’s important to disengage from the teen as soon as abusive behaviour starts. Leave the situation and insist on dealing with the teen’s issue only once he’s prepared to keep his behaviour in check. This is a challenging strategy because it requires the parent to remain calm and focused and not to retaliate with aggression.”

What mistakes do parents make?

Because parents are afraid of negative emotions in their children and want to keep them happy, they panic readily when the children are upset, says Dr Costandius. “Children who have tantrums frequently have anxious parents. These parents need to take constructive steps to manage their own anxiety so they’re not derailed when their children are confronted by disturbing emotions and resort to unacceptable behaviour.”

Bush says the most common mistake parents make is fighting back and not understanding their children’s needs. “They buy into a child’s need to throw tantrums.”

- Suzaan Hauman

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