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.

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 this one that has a long history of doing this behavior. It’s hard for anyone to change an ingrained behavior. Ask any addict; changing a behavior is not as easy as flicking a switch.

I do like the idea of giving him a warning after the first time it happens and then if if he still continues he receives one negative mark on the chart. Once the parent has given the warning and the mark, they then have to follow through with the announced consequence, whatever they may be.

What a parent should never do is back down from the warning. Rational consistency is the hallmark of good parenting. Family units function better when the children can forecast their parent’s reactions to their actions.

What we call the “grandmother’s rule in psychology” is that you take away something the child values to enforce a desired behavior. If you’ve warned him ahead of time what’s going to happen, and he persists on continuing the behavior, and of course he will at first because he’ll need to test his boundaries, you’ll have to follow through and take away whatever that is regardless of what kind of screaming and tantrums this incites.

It’s basic behavior modification theory. After a few times, he will learn that the undesired behavior will not bring him results. As a parent, you’ll need to keep your cool during these times and be the adult in the interaction.

Now that’s the behavioral side; on the emotional side, you might have to try and figure out why he’s doing this. What is he trying to accomplish? Is he in competition with siblings? Is he unhappy at school? Is he not eating a healthy snack to tide him over until dinner? Does he just need some attention and parental time? Basically, what is it that’s going on that he feels that he needs to act this way?

I’m suggesting approaching it from both angles. Figuring out what the emotional reason is behind this at the same time that you institute behavioral modifications, either positive or negative.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with a child that’s stuck in a certain behavior. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

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