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Tantrum in the Doctor’s Reception Area

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Tantrum at the Doctor's Office

I was recently asked about how to cope with a public tantrum. I think the description given below will ring true to many parents:

Yesterday we went to the doctor’s. My daughter had a bowl of goldfish for a snack and she kept spilling them so I held the bowl for her and she went crazy, throwing herself down on the ground in the reception area. She would not stand on her feet and went completely limp. I took her outside to sit on the step and let her sit on the lower step under me and held her with my legs while she thrashed about. We did this for like 5 minutes while she cried and yelled and I talked calmly to her. After that I let her go and offered her three goldfish and she wouldn’t eat them and threw them down and went crazy again so I held her in a leg lock until she calmed down. Then she sat beside me and I offered her a cookie instead and she was better. This whole process took about 25 minutes. I’m just wondering what you thought I should do? Give her nothing? or spanked her? or what? At home it would have been over instantly but in public it doesn’t work that way.

Here are some ideas on how this might go better for you next time:

1) Why does she do this in public only?

You were astute to notice she doesn’t react the same in public as in private.  She has learned from past experience that you are more likely to cave in public and give way to her demands, or that she can seek a little revenge and make you feel small in public by embarrassing or upsetting you in public. 

Rule of Thumb – try to have the same responses for behaviour regardless of where you are.  I know it takes a lot of confidence, but believe it or not, people really don’t really care as much about you and your parenting as you think. Honest. 

2) Tantrums are usually a form of a power struggle.

A tantrum is a child’s attempt to win a power contest that is being held between the child and the parent. The issue is not the gold fish per se, but rather "who has power over who?".  I recommend parents don’t try to "win" power struggles, nor do I think they should cave and "loose" power struggles. Both winning and loosing serve to model to the child that power struggles are a good way to get your way in relationships. We don’t want them learning that do we? Instead, we must work to END the power struggle, by coming to a truce so you can get on with what is required of the situation. 

Usually, power struggles get started when a parent steps into the child’s roles and responsibilities. In this case: whose role and responsibilities where the snack? Who owned the problem?  In trying to "help her" you accidentally usurped her power to manage herself, her situation and her choices.  When she starts to tantrum you have to think back on what got her triggered. What just happened that she perceived you as being dominating or controlling (usurping her power)? 

If she’d rather hold the gold fish and continue to drop them, do you really care? I wouldn’t let her eat them off the floor mind you. I might even say "I am worried that you’ll have none left to eat if they all keep spilling and you’ll be hungry."  But the snack is hers to manage, her mistakes to make and her disappointed to deal with. 

3)  Too Late – Tantrum is on

Once a tantrum is started, stop talking. There is no value in discussion when the child is in this state. Remain calm yourself, because if the child successfully gets you upset, it serves as "payoff". She will feel victorious in her tactics to dominate you (your mood) with her tantrum and thus will stick with this successful behaviour strategy.

4) Disengage – Tantrums require you as the audience 

Once a tantrum is on, stop engaging in any way. There are many ways we "engage" with children besides talking. These include looking at the child, holding / hugging / rocking / pinning down, talking to calm them, etc. All of these are interactions between two individuals and it keeps adding fuel to the fire.   The parent must disengage.  As Dr Rudolph Dreikurs used to say, "you must take your sail out of their wind".

5) Dentist Office Example

Once the tantrum begins, try totally ignoring it. Let her fall to the floor screaming. Pick up a magazine and start reading it. Don’t look at her, don’t touch her. Get busy with something else. If she screams so loudly and for so long that it is a public nuisance to the doctor’s office, you can remove her from that environment to finish the tantrum somewhere where it won’t affect others.

You can ask her, "can you calm yourself or do we need to go outside" (or to the car).

If she continues, carry her outside, and let her finish her upset out there while you sit and read a magazine from the office. Don’t look, don’t talk, don’t touch until she has calmed herself. You can let her know that, "when you are calm, I’ll know you are ready to go back in."

6) Success

Tantrums can be measured in their frequency, duration and intensity. If you are working to eliminate tantrums, be sure to use these objective measures to keep you encouraged that your making progress.

7) Positive Power

Children need power. We want them to find it on the positive side of life namely, in being competent and capable and in contributing their talents to the family.  If you spend time training children to manage on their own, they will get a sense of empowerment. Help her progress along the continuum towards full self-competence.

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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