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Dealing with Severe and Persistent Temper Tantrums

Hi Mark,

My mother S___ talked to you and then bought your program for my wife J___ and I. We have two boys Sammy 8 and Andy 4 (turns 5 Aug 20). Both of our boys have tons of energy and are very strong-willed. We're concerned about Andy's behavior however, we're optimistic that the program will also help Sammy. We've worked through Session 1 and 2 and have experienced some positive results despite the opposition at times. Our new "outlook" has not been popular especially with Sammy.

Andy can be having a wonderful day and then suddenly "snap" and go into another place where he is defiant, annoying, and ignores any type of authority or discipline. He will lose one toy after another and not seem to care. He will not stay in a time out. He's aggressive and borderline abusive with our dog, his brother etc. He can get very physical. He gets this Jack Nicholson (shining) look on his face. He even does the eye roll. It's like a switch has been thrown and nothing can turn it around. Yesterday the "switch" was thrown over getting dressed. He wanted to put on his pajamas. Jackie said "no" that he needed put on clothes for the day.

He will be entering kindergarten this fall (three weeks). Although he is not interested in the academics, he's big for his age, extremely athletically talented and very social. Until summer, he had been attending a pre-school three days a week. All of his caregivers are totally convinced that he is ready to go even though he is young. We're very concerned about his behavior once he starts school.

We were first alerted of his behavior weirdness while he was at preschool. The caregiver lost control of him completely as he trashed the place, hurt other kids and scratched, and pinched her. Up until then, they praised his behavior and never had any issues with him. He was a great, mellow, happy baby.

The 2nd red flag involved Andy attending a two week day camp for 5 yr. olds. We thought this would be a wonderful social opportunity for him to prep for kindergarten. It was an absolute disaster. Two young, rookie councelors had 12 kids. We barely made it through the first 4 days before the 3 day weekend. Although the program was totally unorganized, Andy was defiant, showed no respect for the councelors and was "not nice" to his fellow campers. We pulled him after the 1st day of week two when I got a call that Andy was completely out of control and hurting other kids and the councelors.

It seems as though if there's any hint of lack of control, he'll do whatever it takes to escalate the issue, or get control himself. Once he's in the zone, it seems that nothing will get through to him. He doesn't compute consequences to promote good behavior. This throws him into rage and he acts out even more.

Sammy has always demanded an extreme amount of attention and because he's older and very athletically gifted as well, he's been in the spot light. We've really tried to give both of our kids equal attention and praise. It seems as though we've been over the top on the praise. Sammy and Andy fight and play wrestle quite a bit and it always leads to someone upset or crying. Sammy is not very nice to his little brother as he sees him as annoying. Andy of course provokes and pushes all of the right buttons.

So here's an introduction to our challenges. I'm sure you'll have questions, but we're stuck on what to do in the heat of the moment, when he's in the zone. He could care less if we take away all of his toys. Last night, I led him into the car, buckled him in and told him that he was going somewhere else to live, that he obviously didn't want to live with us, respect us or listen to us. I was prepared to drive down to the police station, when he finally snapped out of it, started crying and climbed out of the car and ran back into the house. He quickly picked up the board game that he had dumped got ready for bed and seemed sincerely sorry for how he had behaved. However, Jackie informed me that he was unaffected this morning and refusing to put on his clothes.

There you have it. We'd love some feedback. We're excited about your program and we want to get our kids back on track. Thanks for listening.



Hi D.,

So we’re talking basic temper tantrums here. Here is a list of ways to avoid and also deal with temper tantrums:
  1. Allow a grace period before an activity ends - This is one that I have started doing constantly with our grandson, Jake, and it has worked wonders for us. Carry a timer or even use the alarm on a cell phone. Tell your kid for example "OK you have 5 minutes left to watch TV before bed. When the alarm goes off then time is up". I normally play the alarm to let Jake know what it will sound like before I set it.
  1. Allow options! - Give a little leeway and allow your kid to make some choices for himself. Ask "Do you want to wear the green shirt or the blue shirt today?" Allowing your kid to be active in choices when appropriate will help to prevent power struggles.
  1. Count - If you kid is starting to get worked up step aside with your kid and say "Lets count". This will help to distract your kid and refocus his mind on something else. Count with your kid until he calms down. Then you can calmly discuss the situation that caused a tantrum if needed.
  1. Distraction - If a situation is getting touchy and you know that your kid will throw a tantrum redirect their attention immediately. If it’s raining outside and the kid is throwing a tantrum to go outside think of an indoor activity that your kid loves and suggest it instead.
  1. Do not reward - Don't reward your kid after a tantrum. They may associate tantrums with ways to get better treats.
  1. Don't ask! - Avoid arguments that will lead to tantrums by NOT asking your kid to do something that they have to do. Don't ask "Ready to brush your teeth?" Instead say "OK time to brush your teeth now."
  1. Establish a reward system for good behavior - Set up a chart with your kid’s name on it and squares for each day of the week. Buy some stickers that your kid likes. When your kid has a good day have him place a "reward sticker" on the square for that day. You can offer different rewards for different amounts of stickers. We offer Jake a prize day where if he has had good behavior for the week then we will get him a "prize" while he is at school. We have done toys (small toys like cars, trucks, etc), movies, and books.
  1. Establish a routine and stick to it! - This can help eliminate many many nighttime tantrums. Once your kid learns what is expected to happen there will be less of a struggle and less tantrums.
  1. Ignore - Sometimes its best to ignore a tantrum that is being thrown for the sole purpose to attract your attention. Tell your kid that when he decides to act appropriate then you will pay attention. After the kid has finished the tantrum then provide the attention wanted.
  1. Never give in - Giving in to a tantrum will only encourage the behavior and will result in the kid throwing tantrums more often. If your kid knows that you will cave if he throws a tantrum then it will most likely happen anytime you refuse to give something wanted.
  1. Remain Calm - I know it’s hard to do, but if you remain calm then it will help to shorten your kid’s tantrum and help keep you sane. Spanking or yelling at your kid while he is throwing a tantrum will only make the tantrum worse and cause you to become madder.
  1. Reward positive behavior - Positive re-enforcement of good behavior is a good way to prevent tantrums. Kids will want to make you happy and if you are super excited about good behavior they will try to repeat. "Great job sharing your toys!"
  1. Tolerance - How many times do you say NO to your kid each day? Avoid fighting over minor things to help prevent tantrums.
Remember to ignore the disapproving glances by others in the stores if your kid is throwing a tantrum. Handle the tantrum appropriately and remember that they have either been in the same situation with their kid or its been so long since they had to deal with a tantrum that they have forgotten what its like. It will take some time but being consistent with how you handle tantrums will help to eliminate most if not all of them in the future!

Mark Hutten, M.A.


Unknown said...

But what can you do once the shutters have come down? Once the crazy child has appeared? The one who threatens to hurt the pets, throws things at their brother, threatens to hurt you, calls you names? How can you bring them out of that? You can't touch them, comfort them. How do you calm them once you have gone past the point where they will step aside and count, or be distracted?

Unknown said...

Um, your kid's 4. One, this is typical preschooler behavior, and 2, you're bigger than him. If he's throwing stuff, abusing the dog, throwing a fit on a shop floor, pick him up and remove him. Or, remove the object or dog and deprive him of his audience.
If he's screaming because he's hungry or tired, fix it. Take pull ups, extra clothes, food etc when you go out so you won't be caught short.
If he won't stay in time out, again - pick him up and put him back.

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