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Parents #AskAlyson: Tantrums

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This letter comes from Naomi:

Hi Alyson,

I am writing to see if you might be able to help with my son, Lucas. He is 3 1/2 years old and has 3 to 5 major tantrums a day that last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more.  He screams non-stop because he wants to do something that’s (usually) impossible. (For example, pay the lady at the grocery store after we’ve already left, or open a door when someone else already did it). I have read “Honey, I Wrecked TheKids” and think I’m in a power dance where he needs to feel capable of doing something, but just can’t get out of it. I talk calmly and at his level to show him that I understand but it’s not helping.  He screams and cries so hard he often pukes. Sometimes, I try to ignore him and walk away but he just follows me and screams even more, bangs on the door, kicks me when I open it. Whenever possible, I re-do the thing he wanted, like go back outside so he can open the door again, but sometimes that’s not even enough, he will scream that he wants to do it two times or three times. Please help!

Dear Naomi,

Thanks for the question. I love your little guy. He is clearly a strong willed 3.5 year old and that is not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, mean that your work will be to channel that strong will towards co-operative interests. Currently he has regular meltdowns when things don’t go his way. Think of his meltdowns as protests. He is making the declaration: “I want what I want, when I want it.” That is exactly the infantile position we all start life with: self–centered and self-interested. As we grow older and with proper child guidance, kids come to understand that in life we don’t always get what we want when we want it. We are members of a wider community of people who also must be considered. This is what Dr Alfred Adler called “the iron clad logic of social living”. Children need to learn to accept this reality. Our job is to increase their frustration tolerance and acceptance in this direction.   You are on your way!

Now, his disappointment in not being the one to pay the cashier or push the elevator button is one thing, but from your description, he seems to be carrying on so long and hard and in ways that disturb others’ functioning that his behaviour has the goal of communicating the sentiment: “ I have been thwarted from getting my way – so you’ll be made to pay for it by having to endure my foul mood”.

What I can share is this: he has the right to be disappointed and frustrated. You also have the right not to be bothered by his foul mood or keep him company when he is in this state. Give him permission to be in a bad mood, without letting him hijack the rest of the family plans. You are doing the right thing!

Here are some add-ons that will help too:

  1. He might de-escalate more quickly if you respond in empathetic instead of explanatory ways: “I can see you are really disappointed you didn’t get to pay this time rather than “you fell asleep, was I supposed to wait till you woke up? You can pay next time!”
  2. He wants to get his way, but only knows how to use temper to sway the situation in his favour. It doesn’t work always – but SOMETIMES it does, and that is enough to keep him using this method. Instead, do not acquiesce to his mood.
  3. Increase his social interest. Give him lots of opportunities to help others. What can he do around the house (open doors, make a pancake breakfast, bring soup to a neighbour) to increase his autonomy, mastery and independence. Let him be in the service of others to take the focus off of what’s in it for him.
  4. Establish clear rules. Children with this type of explosive personality often take decisions as personal affronts rather than the application of a rule. This often comes from us being arbitrary. The clearer the rule is, the more likely he is to live within the confines of that rule. Allow him to help establish rules, and the cooperation will likely follow.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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2 Responses to “Parents #AskAlyson: Tantrums”

  1. Pierrette

    Dear Alyson
    This is the ‘nana” I love my grandchild but mom and dad deal with a tantrum 5 days a week because she doesn’t want to go to school what’s your advice .

    Thank you pierrette

    • Alyson Schafer

      Sorry it took me so long to reply Pierette! I missed the notification you had posted. It is common for little ones’ to tantrum at drop off as they protest the idea of moving from one activity to another, from home to school, to playing with their parents to playing with friends. They live in the moment. Don’t be distressed at the tantrum, just manage it calming by being calm yourself, make the drop off quick( read the post on “happy snappy good-byes” and use the assistance of the teacher to help the child get off your pant leg or floor and in the classroom. Tell them you love them and will see them soon. Maybe share what you’ll be doing while they are in class and be sure to pick them up ON TIME. Kids get very upset when they don’t see you at the door.


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