Addressing temper tantrums

Behavioral Health: Addressing temper tantrums

One of the more common problems that can be experienced with any developing child can be the act of temper tantrums. Due to limitations in communication or understanding this can even be greater for those with developmental disabilities such as autism. A key is to determine what the motivation is for the behavior. In some cases we are not always aware of the motivation for a tantrum but usually it relates to the event that was experienced before the tantrum occurred. There are specific techniques that can be used to minimize the negative impact of tantrums and over time these actions can even result in minimal to no tantrum behavior.

The first concept is to remember that all behavior has function. There is a reason and desired outcome for tantrum activities. When a behavior such as a tantrum achieves a desired outcome then, obviously, it is more likely to be repeated in the future. We need to make an educated guess as to what the desired outcome is and insure that the tantrum behavior, regardless of the cost, does not achieve that outcome. Equally important, if we suspect we may know the desired outcome we should, where reasonable, give that outcome to the child only when behaviors we desire occur. For example, the desire for a candy bar could be refused and result in a tantrum. A wise move would be to give the candy bar after the child has successfully performed a desired request at a later time. One word of caution, don’t use the reward as a bribe but simply give it when success is achieved with a positive verbal explanation as to why. Other motivations for tantrums can be to simply get attention, a reaction to a demand being placed on the child; lack of understanding, sensory overload, and feeling left out or even an unrelated previous problem simply because you may be the person the child feels “safe” to tantrum upon.

In the heat of the moment it is important to not lecture the child as they likely don’t truly hear you anyway. Simple short phrases, repeated using the same words, will better communicate. Don’t use threats or bribes, just state the action you want performed. Also, even if you feel you are about to emotionally explode try to not show any negative emotional impact you may be feeling for this behavior, as that may be the desired outcome. The overall response by the caregiver needs to appear to be unaffected by the behavior. Interaction with the child should be minimal during the tantrum. If the tantrum relates to non-compliance, it is critical that the requested behavior eventually be performed by the child even if it takes a considerable period of time for this to happen. You will find that once the child knows you are going to follow through, regardless of the effort needed, the value of tantruming goes down. If the behavior “crosses the line”, such as hitting, a time out consequence, again with minimal emotion, should be the result.

A consistent approach that does not result in the tantrums desired outcome and achieves minimal attention should, over time, reduce or eliminate tantrum behavior.