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.

When You Don’t Like Your Kid’s Friend


Why do I dislike my daughter’s friend so much?

MOLLY: This question came from Northern California and the reader elaborated by asking how she can learn to deal with her daughter’s friendships with kids that simply rub her the wrong way? One of the examples she gave is that every time her daughter has a playdate with a certain friend, she has a viscerally negative reaction to the child the entire time she’s at her house.

She asks, “What should I be doing differently? Clearly I’m the adult and should be able to manage these feelings. I also don’t want to manipulate my daughter’s friendships, so I know I’m going to have to figure out a way to be OK with this friend. And, my husband really likes the parents.”

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This is an interesting –and difficult– dilemma on several levels. First, it’s important for her to realize the reason she’s having such a strong reaction. Chances are that this kid reminds her of someone she doesn’t like (in psychological parlance, this is called transference).

The kid could remind her of one of her parents, siblings, friends, or just some random person in her past. Whenever you have an intense reaction to someone, either positive or negative, and you can’t make sense out of it, chances are it’s a transference. She should see if she can figure out who it might be as that would be a tremendous help for her to figure out her feelings and what to do about them.

MOLLY: Does this happen a lot to people: that they transfer their feelings about one person to another because they are reminded of someone else?

MOM: Yes, transference happens everyday, all the time. It can either be a positive transference where you feel warmly towards someone even though you might barely know him/her, or a negative transference in which you just don’t like that person but have no idea why. This reader’s question is clearly referring to a negative transference.

MOLLY: Should she speak to the parents of the child about it?

MOM: If she wants to maintain her relationship with the parents, it’s best not to say anything. Once you criticize a friend’s child, the chances of keeping a relationship with the parents is close to nil.

MOLLY: What can she say to the kid when she’s over having a playdate with her daughter? Should she say anything or bite her tongue and recognize that her feelings aren’t rational?

MOM: As a mom and a host, we are within our bounds to gently tell a visiting child the rules of our house and to enforce them, within acceptable limits, of course. If the mom is open to it, she might challenge herself to develop a relationship with this child in order to offer her a positive role model upon which to base her behavior.

Experience this? Comment below or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Is My Child Manipulating Me?

I feel like my child pushes the boundaries to get what he wants. Am I being manipulated?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): That is an interesting question, and I don’t have a definitive answer, but even very young children can see the power they can have over their parents. It’s mostly an issue of patterns.

For instance, if a two-year old is crying at night and his parents always pick him up and hold him when he does this, he will actually train himself to wake up to get the comfort. You could call that manipulative behavior, and maybe it is, but I confess that I’m on the fence about using that term here.

Children can learn how to get certain responses from their parents from a very young age. Typically not before 15 months, but some kids can understand this dynamic really quickly, and the parents can tell. They may feel manipulated and resent their child. In this case, they must intervene to change the dynamic. Let’s remember who’s the parent and who’s the child. As a parent, you have to set the tone for the child, and when they attempt to manipulate you, you have to be firm –loving but firm– that it is not going to work.

Supposing you have an older child. You might want to set up some limits around how often they can be on the computer. Then he or she will test you (and they will always test you) by trying to expand beyond the boundaries you have set. You should expect this. You’ll have to intervene right away and say, “Remember how we talked about this: you get to play on your computer for one-half hour a day and now you’re moving into 45 minutes. That’s not okay, and you need to put the computer away. If you can’t follow the rules, you’ll lose your time on the computer tomorrow.”

Kids will test you, and may test to see if they can manipulate you with tears or tantrums, and a parent should be ready to face these behaviors with resolve.

MOLLY: Are there any long-term consequences for not dealing with this type of manipulative behavior early on?

MOM: Yes there can be, especially if the pattern sets in and the child learns that the way to get what he wants is to manipulate the parents. Children can actually be quite good at this. That behavior will go on and on at home, and it will expand to include other people like classmates and teachers, or other people that he comes in contact with, like coaches.  Nobody likes to feel manipulated and usually people do experience a sense of being manipulated when it happens. What happens if this is left unaddressed in children is they end up forming a kind of character flaw or a negative character aspect that follows them into adulthood and really lasts forever. It’s much more difficult to change your character as an adult.

MOLLY: What might you see in the workplace?

MOM: You could see all kinds of behaviors in adults who were manipulative children, especially if a person wants to get out of doing a job. He or she might manipulate their boss or with co-workers, sometimes without fully realizing what is happening.

Manipulation can take many forms. Often, people will use shame as the tool to get what they want. They will shame other people to get them to do what they want. The other person knows something’s wrong when this happens, but they often don’t see the complete picture of what it is that is happening.

MOLLY: What about in relationships, like in marriages or partnerships?

MOM: That’s when you really see this type of character flaw show up, often on a daily basis. A manipulative person might twist things around to make her partner feel as if something is not the manipulator’s fault, and is, in fact, the partner’s fault. It makes the partner very angry and confused. This type of manipulation is often subtle, making it uncomfortably difficult to be in a relationship with someone who behaves this way.

MOLLY: So the manipulation is there, but it’s not that obvious.

MOM: Right. In children, manipulative behavior is usually pretty obvious, but as the child “perfects the art of manipulation,” they can become much more subtle, leaving people feeling uncomfortable but not quite able to put their finger on what it is that’s making them feel this way.

MOLLY: If you don’t deal with this type of behavior in childhood, what happens? At what age is it too late to influence character development in a child?

MOM: A lot of psychologists might feel that ten- to twelve-years old is getting pretty late in the game to deal with character traits like this one. I don’t know exactly the cut off age, but I do know that it gets harder and harder to manage as people move into adulthood. Certainly by the time people are in their twenties, I think it’s too late to change something like this.

This interview was originally published on Psych Central.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your child’s manipulative behavior or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Creating a Successful Sticker Chart to Reinforce Behavior in Children

How do you create a successful discipline program using positive reinforcement?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): You’ll want to gear this to the age of the kid. Children catch on to this very rapidly.

If it’s a young child you want to have a fairly limited amount of things on the chart. At most, five things on the list for a 2 or 3 year old. When they get to be 4, you can add some more.

The most important thing is that you engage the child in the process of setting up the rewards. What’s interesting to me is that the children will often come up with harsher penalties than a parent will. There’s a lot of interesting things that come out of this exercise. One is that you get to see how your kid thinks.

MOLLY: But the chart isn’t about the consequences or the punishments; it’s focused on the behaviors you want to change and keeping it positive rather than negative. Right?

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: Behaviors like saying “Please” and Thank you”…?

MOM: Yes. With a sticker chart you reinforce the behavior on the positive side.

MOLLY: So we shouldn’t set it up that we mark the chart every time the child doesn’t say Please” or “Thank You”?

MOM: No: you mark the chart when the kid does say “Please” and “Thank You”.

MOLLY: So every time the child says “Please” and “Thank You”, he or she gets a sticker on the chart?

MOM: And then you also want to gently point out times when the kid doesn’t say “Thank You” when he or she should have.  You can say, “This is one of those times when you could have said “Thank You” and gotten a sticker. I know you forgot this time, but next time, I know you will remember.” This is the redemption issue, which is so important. The child must understand that he or she will always be able to redeem themselves in your eyes.

MOLLY: So keeping it really positive.

MOM: Yes.

MOLLY: What we did when my daughter was 4 was that after five stickers (which was enough for a kid that age), we went to the bookstore and she got to pick out a favorite paperback book. So it was like a $3 reward.

MOM: You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on this.

MOLLY: Right, it was more the fun of going to the bookstore and feeling like it was her special trip to the bookstore because she earned it.

MOM: Now, for an older child who is, let’s say, 7, 8 or 9, you might think about needing a longer period of time during which to earn the reward. Maybe a month or two months, depending on the age of the child. And then it’s one reward, but maybe it’s a bigger reward. You have to plan this according to the age of the child.

MOLLY: Maybe the child gets to pick a place to go to a special lunch or something like that?

MOM: Yeah, or a game on the computer, or whatever the kid values.

MOLLY: The types of things that we could put on the sticker chart for young kids like mine might be: saying “Please” and “Thank You”, using good manners at the dinner table, not whining and crying when you want something…?

MOM: It depends on what the issues are; this will be different for each kid.

You might have a kid who has terrible table manners. They eat with their mouth open and spit the food out and things like that. I’m a big believer in learning manners at a young age so that when they are older it’s something they don’t even think about. You could use stickers for that like, “I noticed that you ate with your mouth closed all night tonight, that was terrific. That deserves a sticker or star. “

The expectations, durations, and rewards are obviously age related, but it’s all about positive reinforcement rather than negative or punitive consequences.


Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU), and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.

Is it Damaging to Call Your Kid “Bad”?

When one of my friends is upset with her child she say’s “You’re such a bad girl” or “That was a shameful thing you did”.  Is this an effective way to discipline your kid?

MOLLY: This came from a reader based in Los Angeles, California.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): Generally speaking, teaching children through the use of shame has been going on for generations. We have to differentiate between shame and embarrassment.

Embarrassment is something we all experience from time to time: we say something that’s not smart or we get mixed up on our information, and that’s a normal thing people go through all their lives. We get embarrassed by something we’ve done.

Shame is a much deeper issue – it goes right to the soul of the person.

MOLLY: Is there any time you should use shame to discipline your kid?


MOLLY: So saying, “What a bad person you are,” when your child does something wrong, isn’t something you should be doing?

DR. RUTHERFORD: That should be avoided at all costs. Or doing something that makes the child feel ashamed. For example, suppose the child cries a lot for whatever reason. And the mother makes the kid feel a great sense of shame about it.  “How could you cry like that” “You’re just a little baby!” (and the tone of voice is important, too, of course)… Well, that child will shut down – inside, emotionally. And it will in a sense paralyze the child if enough of that goes on.

Or, if you put your kid in the corner, facing the corner. I’ve seen people do that and it’s kinda horrible. The child feels so much shame over whatever the incident. When the kid grows up… You see this all the time, when people experience shame, they may become very withdrawn, or conversely, they can verbally attack another person as a way to get rid of the “bad” feelings inside. Both reactions can lead to difficult interpersonal relationships, and the person probably has no idea why he does the things he does.

MOLLY: What would you see in an adult that was shamed by their parents as a kid? What kind of person are you as a parent going to create using these types of shame tactics?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think you’re going to create somebody on either end of the spectrum.  Possibly an adult who is withdrawn, very careful what they say, measured in their words with a great fear of being spontaneous. It cuts down on their creativity because they are afraid of making mistakes. They don’t ever want to feel that sense of shame again. Which is really, a pretty terrible feeling.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can see especially in boys but you can see it in girls, too, a lot of aggression.  You can see this aggression especially when they feel like they’ve done something wrong or are experiencing a sense of shame. And of course people experience shame from time to time when they’re adults for all kind of reasons. Someone might say you made a mistake at work, or you didn’t do something right, or you said something stupid… That’s when you see a lot of defensive aggression directed at the people closest to them.

MOLLY: Defensive aggression? What does that look like?

DR. RUTHERFORD:  The sense of shame will be triggered off inside you. See, it’s always sitting inside of you – like a virus – and the person constantly feels that they have to defend themselves against that sense of shame. They don’t want to experience the shame so they verbally attack the person whom they feel is causing it, or even just witnessed it. They never really connect it up in any conscious way about what’s going on inside of them, and they don’t learn from it.  They verbally (or physically) attack the person who is making them feel the shame as a way of ridding themselves of the bad feeling.

MOLLY: So for instance, in a marriage, they might be abusive to their wife?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, it’s very common. It’s perplexing to the spouse because they don’t understand where all this aggression is coming from. It’s not a healthy way to resolve problems.

MOLLY: So using shame creates a lot of issues now and later.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes it creates a lot of issues that never get resolved. Instead of shame, you would want to use positive reinforcement.

MOLLY: How would you change it from saying, “You’re such a bad girl for throwing food on the floor or spilling your milk?”

DR. RUTHERFORD: You could say, “We’re having a few problems here in our family and some of the problems we’re having are X, Y or Z. So let’s see if we can make this better for you and the whole family.” It depends on the age of the child, but certainly you’d want to do this when the child is verbal which is usually around two-and-a-half years. You would want to engage the child and make a sticker or star chart (more on that to come in a future posting).

MOLLY: Instead of shaming her, figure out how you can address that behavior by rewarding her for good behavior instead of punishing her for bad behavior?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right, you can do this by creating a sticker or star chart with rewards for good behavior, or by withholding privileges of something they like as an incentive for changing behavior. For example television time or desert.

MOLLY: So instead of saying you’re such a bad girl for throwing your food on the floor, you can say “You know that’s not okay in our house. The next time you do that you’re going to lose your TV privileges for a day.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes… You could say that. But you could also say something like, “How do you think we can solve this problem together so that you are not throwing your food on the floor?” It’s very interesting to watch kids come up with their own ideas about solving problems.

Or, if your kid keeps spilling their milk, the parent could say, “What if we put your cup of milk in a different place on the table so that you’re less likely to spill it?” or “Maybe we should use a top on our cup so it won’t spill?” This can be a very practical tool for resolving problems.

So, it has multiple good impacts on the kid. One is that the kid isn’t shamed if they throw or spill food on the floor.  Two is that they’re learning a way to resolve a particular problem while at the same time they’re learning a process of resolving a problem. This can be a very long process for a child.

For instance, when your 4-year old daughter spilled her milk during her visit here, we talked about a “safe zone” for her cup on the counter. I noticed that afterward she mentioned it every time, at every meal. This is a good example of problem solving for a young child.

MOLLY: And this is something they can use for the rest of their lives?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, they will use it for the rest of their lives. The process will stay with them. It’s a wonderful skill to have for all kinds of circumstances when you’re an adult. It’s not just the content of what you’re teaching the kid, but the process.

MOLLY: How you’re addressing the problem?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. They’ll begin to think like that and be able to resolve problems in a more positive way as they get older. For instance, there was a wonderful example in the television show “Mad Men,” when the mother of Don Draper’s children (Betty) used shame a lot as a way to discipline her children. You could see the emotional distance between the kids and their mother.

Later in the show there was a scene with the Dad and his new girlfriend (Megan) at a restaurant where one of the kids spills milk on the table. The father and the daughter looked at each other apprehensively, ready for an angry response from the girlfriend. Instead Megan said something like, “This kind of stuff happens all the time. No big deal, we’ll wipe it up.” The father and daughter looked at each other with amazement. There was no shaming but instead there was a practical solution to resolve the problem.

It was a striking example of different ways of parenting and of not using shame as a parenting method.