Winning the Tantrum Battles
If there is anything in the world that is likely to give me a breakdown, it’s my three-year-olds’ stubborn streak. He has a heavy brow that furrows beautifully into a grumpy-old-man frown. That look says, “Not on my watch, Mister!” and he uses it to great effect. When I see that coming, there is a great weight of inevitability that settles on me, because I know that there is a battle ahead.
I have learned, however, that, even when the lines are drawn, it doesn’t have to mean “all out war; I’m the grown-up. In any stand-off, I get to choose the rules of engagement because I am the tallest one with the best vocabulary. Therefore, if he wants to throw himself to the ground, scream, and lash out at me, I get to decide if I want to follow suit or just stand there dispassionately and raise one eyebrow, as if to say, “Seriously? This is your strategy?”
That is the great secret behind a successful time-out. As a parent, I don’t want to turn his problem into my problem. Whether it is a behavior that needs confronting, or a lack of compliance, I try to keep the weight of responsibility for the circumstances on his wee shoulders. Believe me, if they can make that much noise, they can handle the pressure of deciding what to do to get out of trouble! I quite simply separate him from whatever is going on, let him know what his options are, and make it clear that all parental privileges or activities are suspended until he makes a healthy choice.
Sometimes, that means removing him to somewhere un-stimulating. A tantrum stair-step, compliance chair, or time-out space is a great way to signal that the behavior is inappropriate. As long as there is nothing to play with, do, or see, it will work. He just goes out there (and keeps going there if inclined to wander) until he can contain himself and we can chat about what went on. Sometimes, that isn’t possible, like in the supermarket, in which case I become the time-out place. I will stand aside with him and let him do his thing but remain passively uninvolved – virtually unavailable. The moment that he starts to calm down I’ll ‘switch on’ again and ask if he is ready to make amends. It takes some composure, but most people will understand what is going on, and other parents usually offer sympathetic looks as I calmly weather a tantrum in the dairy section.
The key is consistency. Keep the consequence the same, your response even, and you will wear down even the most stubborn defenses. It goes without saying that you will blow it sometimes – we all do. But aim for the same measured response and eventually the message will get. It’s amazing how fast one of those frowns dissipates when the alternative is clear.