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Behavioral Modification Approaches To End Tantrum Cycles

WHEN MY 7-YEAR OLD BOY WANTS SOMETHING (LET'S SAY A COOKIE) HE OFTEN CONTINUES ASKING FOR IT UNTIL IT TURNS INTO A FULL ON TANTRUM. WE BECOME STUCK IN A VICIOUS CIRCLE AND I CAN'T GET HIM OUT OF IT.

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MOLLY: This question came from a reader in Northern California and she added that her son's behavior can go on for 45- 60 minutes where she's answered his request (in this case by saying, "I understand, but it's almost time for dinner and you can have a cookie afterward") but his demands just get louder and then it turns into stomping and tears. Once he's entrenched in it he doesn't know how to get himself out of the tantrum. What can she do to stop this pattern?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It sounds to me that this mom has tried all kinds of things to help her child get this under control but she hasn’t had much success yet. It sounds like she's tried some positive reinforcement to help him get control of himself and apparently that’s not working.

What I would do is say to him, after he asks the second time... And  I would set this up with him ahead of time because once he’s into this mode, she has already lost her cause. She would want to say to him, at an unrelated moment when he’s doing fine and not asking for any of this, that she's noticed that he does this behavior. Then she should ask: has he noticed that he does this behavior? I’m sure he has.

She can tell him that tantrums are very disruptive behaviors and are not going to help him get what he wants in his life, so together they have to do something to change this pattern. She can mention that she has tried x, y, and z to help him avoid a tantrum, but he still ends up out of control.  What does he think might work to help him stay in control?

I am always surprised with what a child will come up with when asked this kind of question directly by a parent. Of course, he may not come up with any usable ideas, but in many ways it is the exercise of being asking for his input on how his life goes that is important.

If he doesn’t come up with anything that makes any sense to the mom, she can always fall back on a behavior chart. Behavior charts can be used for positive reinforcement or for negative consequences. She might want to start off with a positive reward for behavior, like putting a sticker on the chart at bedtime each day that he has responded to no more than two requests to stop the incessant requests before they become a full-blown tantrum.

I always like to begin with positive reinforcement before moving to negative consequences. If the positive approach works, then there is no need for unpleasant consequences. Unfortunately, though, sometimes you have to use consequences to modify behavior.

This mom can explain to her son that, “We’re going to start a behavior chart. When you ask more than two times for a cookie and I've already told you No twice, then we’re going to put a mark on the chart. And, once you get to five marks on the chart, we’ll take away tv time (or another perk in his life) for three days.

I wouldn't take away a lovey or other special comfort item, but she'll want it to be meaningful for him.

MOLLY: I would have a consequence for just one mark.

MOM: You could.

MOLLY: I would tell my kid that you get one warning and if you do it again, I'm going to take something away right then.

MOM: In fact that might be better with some kids, but I feel a little softer approach might be better with a kid like...

Read the rest of Dr. Rutherford's advice at Conversations With My M...

Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford are behind the blog “Conversations With My Mother”: a blog about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects. 

Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), and the University of Denver. 
Molly is Dr. Rutherford's younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

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