What Should I Do When My Kid Throws a Fit?

Temper tantrums in childhood are nearly as common as the flu, though no one has developed a vaccine for them. What follows are the four most common problems that I’ve found are at the root of tantrums followed by four guidelines for how to respond.

Problem #1: Your child needs more positive one-on-one time with you

Possible Fix #1: One hour a week of special time

Just as plants grow their branches around obstacles to get light, kids grow their behavior towards that which gets them attention; neither process is conscious. In run-and-gun households–and aren’t we all this way these days–it’s easy to be quietly grateful when our kids are behaving and to give them passionate attention when they screw up. Sure, this kind of attention is like eating an unwashed radish, but if you haven’t eaten in days that can be a pretty delicious food. Moreover, our relationship with our child is like any other relationship in our life: speed bumps are more likely to cause crashes when the relationship hasn’t gotten enough positive attention.

My prescription would be to spend at least one hour a week one-on-one doing nothing but paying attention to your child, expressing positive thoughts and feelings about him and proportionately complimenting anything that he is doing or saying that is praiseworthy. This technique is called special time, which is different from quality time (i.e., in quality time something else is usually getting my attention in addition to my child). My space here is too limited to describe the technique, but I’ve elaborated upon it in the first chapter of my book Working Parents, Thriving Families, and a few days ago I did interview with USA Today that describes it more.

Problem #2: Someone is experiencing a significant stress

Possible Fix #2: Try to either eliminate/reduce the stress and/or increase resources

All of us break when our stress/resources ratio tips too heavily to the stress side. Resources are enhanced when we do things to rejuvenate ourselves, child and adult alike (e.g., socializing with friends, seeing an enjoyable movie). When we break we tend to break in the direction of our vulnerabilities. Adults may drink more, yell more, withdraw from others and so forth. Kids may tantrum. So, ask yourself whether there has been a recent increase in stress in your child’s life or in the life of someone else in the family. If yes, a starting point might be to see if such can be eliminated or reduced. If not, then I would try to be patient and try to increase everyone’s care.

Possible Problem #3: Your child doesn’t feel like doing something

Possible Fix #3: Incentivize future occurrences of the something

 One of the most important tasks we parents have is to grow our child’s capacity to do things when she doesn’t feel like it. No psychological muscle better predicts success in both vocational and interpersonal pursuits. So, if my child is freaking out just because she doesn’t care for a rule or restriction that is developmentally appropriate, I would set up an incentive for future occurrences. Lets say she’s freaking out because you’ve told her to clean her room. Perhaps you might decide that, going forward, access to TV is earned each day by having cleaned the room appropriately (i.e., to spec and without freaking out). You are not taking TV away in these instances. Your child is either deciding to earn or not earn TV based on her behavior. No matter what you’re going to insist on the room being cleaned, less you create a training program for throwing fits, but whether it results in the TV being earned or not is dependent upon your child’s choices.

I have a much more detailed description of setting up a range of behavioral programs in my parenting book. You can also find additional guidelines at this blog post: Seven Tips for When Your Child Refuses to Do a Chore.

Possible Problem #4: Your child is showing the expression of a diagnosable psychological problem

Possible Fix #4: Seek our the services of a mean-lean-healing machine

 Tantrums are like fevers. You know there’s a problem but it could be many different things. Like a fever, you try treating it yourself first if it’s mild. However, if it persists, or if it’s serious (e.g., the tantrums are violent), then it’s good to do as you would do with a medical problem: seek out the services of a clinician well trained to diagnose and to treat the problem(s). To find possible candidates, click here. Here are some related blog posts:

Signs That a Kid Needs Mental Health Services

Seven Common Myths About Counseling

Affording Mental Health Care

Ok, here are some things to try at the point of the fit, keeping in mind that these may not work or be appropriate for your child.

Guideline #1: Don’t reward the bad behavior

Caving in to your child’s demands often creates a training program for the bad behavior. Your child gets the idea, often not even consciously, that throwing fits gets him his way. Moreover, I wouldn’t increase your positive attention during the fit, which leads to the next guideline.

Guideline #2: Extinguish the flame

Your attention can act as oxygen for the flame. For example, lets say your child throws herself down on the ground in a fit of anger. I would, if she won’t hurt herself and others or damage property, and if it’s possible for you given other demands on your time, leave her alone as she calms down. You might say as you leave: “What you’re doing is inappropriate. Let me know when you’re ready to clean your room.”

Guideline #3: Use timeout

Timeout can be done in ways that are not effective. But, if you’ve gotten some good counsel on how to do it, this can be a good time to use it (again with the parenting book?!…sorry, its just that there is just so much relevant information that I can’t cram in here and I don’t want to leave you hanging).

Guideline #4: Do a psychological autopsy

Once everyone is calmed down, which might be after the fit, later that day or sometime after that, I would sit down with your child and deconstruct what happened. We all lose IQ points when we’re upset. We do well to wait until everyone’s brain is fully back online before doing this work. Some of the best teaching can be delivered through questions: “What happened yesterday when I asked you to clean your room?” “What do you think about how you acted?” “What would be a good way for you to make up for what you said and did?”

If you have two adults parenting in your household it might be good for the parent who was not involved in the conflict to do this autopsy. If the transgression was slight, a heartfelt apology may be sufficient. If not, simply apologizing is not good for your child’s character development. Therefore, I would look for a proportionate reparation he could make, for his sake (e.g., using his own allowance to replace a magazine he ripped up, writing out an apology, offering to rub mom’s feet ;-).

Dealing with this issue can be a true pain in the neck, and make one wonder what exactly are the criteria for arranging for an adoption out of the home, but it’s very important work. And, you are to be saluted for taking it on!

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Comments

2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Another thing to do is observe and record physical medical information. Heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of eyes (or not), reddening of face or body (or not), nail biting and other physical observations. Signs such as these can point to a physiological issue.

  2. Another thing to do that may help is to observe and record physical medical information. Heart rate, blood pressure, dilation of eyes (or not), reddening of face or body (or not), nail biting and other physical observations can point to a physiological issue.

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