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My 4 year old son has uncontrollable tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants. It's especially embarrassing in places like restaurants or the grocery store. Do you have any tips on how I can calm his outbreaks without giving into him?


Christine Hierlmaier Nelson Replied: Your son may tend toward a feisty temperament. He is a fun-loving kid ready for adventure and his reactions are big when he is happy and also big when he is angry. My first piece of advice is to never give in to him when he throws a fit. By giving in, this teaches the little scientist in his brain that throwing a fit equals "I get what I want." Imagine that reasoning when he is 13! Now, to handle fits in public places: for a short time you will have to choose one of three things: (a) calmly finish your tasks as best as you are able while he is flailing around and screaming (b) leave the store or restaurant immediately and take him home OR (c) take him outside or to a restroom and wait until he tires himself out and is ready to listen to reason. If not, you go home. This is no fun for you, I know. But I assure you that if your child is otherwise mentally and physically healthy, he will eventually get the idea that he gets nothing from having a fit except a sore throat. (Do check his diet and be mindful of the things that lead to a meltdown to ensure that his fits are not triggered by sugar or overstimulation or some other sensitivity. Some kids are more sensitive to light and noise, for example, than others.) To counteract the fits, compliment your son whenever he is behaving well. Fill a jar with cotton balls for each good deed or calm choice. A full jar earns him a reward. This will support his cause-effect scientist in a positive way because he will learn that a full jar of cotton balls equals "I get what I want." Also, do not pay attention to how other people react to your son. Most parents understand that children aren't always on their best behavior. If they don't understand, it's not your concern. Your concern is being the best parent for your child and teaching him that yelling and screaming do not get rewarded under any circumstances. But you love him regardless!
Posted On 2010-06-06 22:53:33
Janet Price Replied: My heart goes out to you as you struggle with this difficult situation!! This has to be one of the most excruciating experiences for parents of young children-- seeing our child become uncontrollably angry when he can't have what he wants, and especially doing so in public!

I have provided some resources (two books and a website) that can shed some light on this issue and offer help in much more detail than I can here.

A few thoughts: Remember that behavior is a skill. It sounds like your son does not have adequate skills and strategies to handle frustrations, such as not getting what he wants. Age-appropriate behavior comes more easily to some children than to others. Some children need more focus on teaching acceptable behaviors, including how to ask for what you want in socially acceptable ways, and how to handle frustrations when the answer is no.
It is important to respond as consistently as possible when your son exhibits unwanted behaviors. If you are at a restaurant and he has a tantrum because he does not get what he wants, be prepared to remove him from the situation-- if there is another parent in the picture, one of you can remove him immediately while the other asks for the rest of the food to be wrapped for take-out and pays the bill. Go to casual restaurants that have short waits for the food and are probably more used to having families as customers and can handle the occasional unruly child. Let your son know prior to going out what positive behaviors he needs to have for a successful trip to the restaurant. The expectations for a four-year-old need to be simple, such as - "Here are the foods that you can order and these are not options."

Provide positive comments often at the restaurant when he is acting appropriately. Explain specifically what you are praising--" You are sitting with your legs and hands quiet!" "You have been waiting so patiently for our food to arrive" "It looks like you are enjoying coloring in the coloring book you brought with you. What a good idea!" "It is so enjoyable to be here as a family and have a nice meal out together!"

At home it is a little easier to be consistent in your stance of not giving in to his demands in that there is not a restaurant of people watching! Tantrums are only a powerful tool for your son if they cause the desired reaction in you, such as giving in to the demand, or getting your attention. Ignoring tantrums can go a long way to eliminating them, or at least reducing the amount of times your son employs this strategy to get what he wants. Use words to let him know that you see that he is upset, and that when he calms down you two can try to find a solution together that works for both of you-- like another toy that is more appropriate for indoors, or getting that toy down after nap, but not now. Then walk away (such as to another room), if he is safe, or at least turn away so he sees that his tantrum does not wield power.

Remember that changing behavior and habits take time and practice. Your son may act out even more at first in resistance to the new ways that you are responding to his tantrums.

So, hang in there! Respond consistently and acknowledge any steps you observe in your son towards the positive behavior that you are looking for and working towards.

Finally, if your son does not respond to these strategies,I recommend that you meet with a child psychologist who can assess your situation in detail and offer specific strategies for teaching your son new ways to communicate what he wants and deal more successfully when he becomes frustrated.

I wish you the best as you work towards building skills in your son that will help him deal with the frustration of not always getting what he wants, and for a calmer and happier home for all of you! Sometimes it only takes a few changes in his, and your, behaviors to reach these goals!
Posted On 2010-06-06 18:32:45
Maggie Macaulay Replied: Tantrums are a young child's version of a power struggle. The child does not have the words yet to get involved in a verbal power struggle. If your child is having a public tantrum because he is asking for something and not receiving it, there are several steps that you can take to help him handle things more calmly. First of all, be very clear on what you are willing to buy and what you are not willing to buy before you enter the store or restaurant. You may want to clearly state your limits with your child even before you leave the house. Also, if your child is tired, hungry, or not feeling well, taking him to the store is probably a set up for a tantrum. Plan practice runs to the store over a period of several weeks during which you are only picking up a few items. While you are at the store, give him a job so that he is engaged and being helpful. He can point to items you are looking for ("Help me find the red apples. Do you see them anywhere?"), set things in the cart and put things on the check out belt. Let him know how much you appreciate his help. If he asks for something that you are unwilling to buy, state that you understand that he likes it and that it is not on your list of things to get. You can have a conversation about the product, asking him what he likes about it. Listen intently to what he has to say. If he begins to tantrum, calmly and gently take him out of the store. Let him know that you will both go back in the store when he calms down. When he is calm, give him a lot of encouragement for having calmed himself down and return to shopping. If he does not calm down, but continues to tantrum, simply say "We are going home." Take him home without criticizing or chastising him and let him know that he will do better next time. Because you are on a practice run rather than a large shopping trip, it will not be such a big loss of time and effort. Go through the same steps on your next practice run. Take him on a larger shopping venture when he is ready. The same steps can be done in a restaurant, being sure to plan a number of practice runs for him to gain experience before an important meal out.
Posted On 2010-06-05 21:32:39
Sharon Silver Replied: Of course the first thing you want to do is make sure that the tantrums are just that, tantrums and not a sign of anything else. How you do that is to try what I suggest for several weeks. If nothing changes, then you may want to look at books like The Explosive Child by, Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. or see a behavior specialist. But I wouldn't go there just yet, especially based on how you described this in your question. Your question seems pretty normal to me.

What you need to know now about tantrums is that at age 4, tantrums are about control and ways to seek attention. I believe the best way to handle situations like this is to remove the control and the attention.

Take your child out of the situation. Leave the restaurant, the grocery store or have him leave the room he's in, there by unplugging some of the attention. If this happens out in public, I recommend you leave the store or restaurant but do not go home. If you do go home you're teaching him that his tantrums have ultimate control over the family. Don't be embarrassed, it happens all the time. If you have a shopping cart full of food, hand it to the manager and tell him you'll be back in a few minutes.

Just take your child outside, even though he is screaming, so he's away from where people are looking at you both. Make sure you're someplace where he can't hurt himself, and sit silently beside him. Say nothing. Know that he will probably get louder because he isn't used to you being silent. The increase in his screaming is just him trying to get you to go back to the way things have always been, where he screams and you either yell or tries to talk him down.

At some point he will calm down, you need to be silent until he does. Being silent until he calms is how you stop giving him attention. Look at the trees instead of looking at him. After he calm,s then you can talk to him. The real learning come now. This is when he has to adjust to not getting what he wanted and control himself and go back to the situation.

If this happens at home, you can tell him that tantrums don't happen any more where the family plays, he can go to his room and tantrum until he's done and then rejoin the family.

Sooner, rather than later, he will come to realize that he gets no more attention when he tantrums, he gets lots of attention for talking about what he doesn't like.

Most parents think this kind of tantruming should be all gone by now, since he's older than 2. But some children persist or return to tantrums during this big control phase.
Good luck.
Posted On 2010-06-05 17:01:20
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