The Tried and True Trick for Dealing with Tantrums
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
If you’re a parent or caregiver, then odds are that you’ve experienced a big old tantrum at some point. Perhaps it’s a rarity in your house. Perhaps it’s a frequent occurrence. Regardless, there is one tried and true trick that is highly effective for reducing this behavior: selective attention.
As you’ve probably noticed, kids are very motivated to get our attention. And being the clever littles ones that they are, they’ve figured out an almost fool-proof way of achieving that goal through throwing fits. How resourceful of them! As parents, whenever we pay attention to the tantrums (even if it’s to tell our child to stop or try to redirect them toward a more appropriate behavior), we are inadvertently teaching them that this method of getting our attention is, indeed, very effective.
We may as well give them a big prize for throwing that fit, because nothing is as valuable to them as a parent’s attention (good or bad).
To stop this cycle, we implement selective attention. At a high level, here’s how it works: You (with or without the help of a therapist, depending on how comfortable you feel with the procedure) tell your child ahead of time that you will always ignore him/her if they start to throw a fit. You explain the behaviors that you want to see from them in order to get your attention (i.e. “talking calmly”, “expressing your feelings in a big boy voice”). Then, when it happens, you utilize a skill called active ignoring, whereby you purposely and thoughtfully turn all of your attention away from the undesirable behavior (as long as the child is not unsafe; if they are a danger to themselves or others, please consult with a licensed child psychologist prior to implementing any plan). When the tantrum starts, you just start doing something else nearby them - play on your phone, read a book, etc. When I say you should give the child no attention during this time, I mean no attention in any possible way: no grimacing, no irritated exhaling, no eye contact, no facing in their direction, even. It’s as if you don’t see or hear the tantrum. Then, the second the undesirable behavior stops (i.e. they quiet down and talk in a calm voice), you immediately re-direct your attention toward them and give attention to the positive behavior you’re noticing (e.g. “I love that you are calm and using your big girl voice!”).
Used consistently, the child will learn that the only way to get your attention is through positive behaviors, and tantrums will subside as your child learns through experience that these fits no longer serve their purpose.
I must warn you: selective attention, albeit highly effective when used correctly, is much easier said than done. When and if you start to attempt this technique, your child will likely escalate in response to your new behavior; their thought process will be something along the lines of: “well, screaming my head off isn’t getting her attention this time, perhaps I should scream louder!” We call this an ‘extinction burst’ and it is to be expected when implementing this technique (it doesn’t happen with every kid, but is very common). The trick is to withstand this escalation in behavior by sticking with your active ignoring until the behavior subsides – no matter how long it takes at first. Each time, it will get easier and easier as the child learns (through testing you) that there has been a major change in your house: this negative behavior is no longer an effective method for getting your attention.
If you have a child who throws tantrums and you’re at your wit’s end, please know that you’re not alone and that there are very effective methods for reducing (often, eliminating) these behaviors. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (for younger kiddos) and Parent Management Training (for kids of all ages) are the gold standard treatments for behavior problems. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to Dr. Inna Leiter, child and adolescent psychologist in Media, PA, if you would like to discuss your child’s behaviors and some effective parenting strategies that can help you and your family.