Don’t Fear the Tantrum: Just because your child is unhappy with a limit doesn’t mean it’s not good for her

Claire Lerner, LCSW

Sabrina, 3, throws a knock-down-drag-out tantrum when told her iPad time is over. She was in the middle of her game and insists she get to finish it. Her mom, Marcella, agrees to let her have 5 more minutes—to keep Sabrina happy and desperate to avoid a tantrum. But when time is up—again—Sabrina demands: “One more minute, just one more minute!” Marcella gives in a few more times until she cracks, shouting: “It’s never enough for you! If you don’t give me that iPad right now you won’t have it again for a month!” (A limit which Marcella admits she would never implement.)

Every week I am in the homes of families with young children who are struggling with these kinds of dilemmas: the 2-year-old who won’t go to sleep until she has been read an ever-increasing number of books so that bedtime is now 2 hours long; or the 3-year-old “fascist dictator” who is holding the family captive with his endless demands for control—over EVERYTHING. These parents are exhausted, frustrated, angry and resentful; they are also sad and feel like failures, because by the end of the day they feel like all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for love or joy.

As I watch these scenarios unfold, it becomes clear that one major root of the problem is that parents are doing anything possible to avoid the tantrum and keep their children happy. The problem?  This approach just leads to more tantrums, and to missed opportunities to help children learn to adapt to life’s limits—to cope with the inevitable frustrations and disappointments we all confront as we make our way through this world. That’s why limits are loving, and why avoiding them is not.

The following are some key principles that many families I work with find helpful for establishing clear and appropriate limits while remaining loving and present.

  • Change your mindset—see limits as loving. Parents who feel they are being “mean” when their child is upset that they won’t read that 8th book at bedtime (“just one more and then I’ll go to sleep!”) or prepare a 3rd meal after their child has rejected the first two options (that she had requested), naturally have a hard time following through with a limit. Their child’s protests trigger strong emotions that flood their brains, making it hard to think through what their child really needs in that moment. This results in the kids driving the car—calling the shots—which leaves parents feeling out-of-control, manipulated and angry.  Many times parents don’t even recognize this loss of control when it is happening. Unfortunately, and ironically, this usually results in parents actually getting mean—they lose it and start yelling, shaming and punishing, which leaves everyone feeling miserable and the child having learned little about better coping skills.

So, keep reminding yourself that limits are loving, because they lead to flexibility and the development of effective coping strategies—accepting a cheese stick instead of candy, or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits. This ability to adapt is what ultimately makes children happy and helps them be successful in the outside world, now and in the future  Observe any child care center or preschool class and you will see how children learn to cope effectively with limits: not being the line leader or snack helper; having to lie down on a cot for an hour even if they aren’t tired; needing to share their favorite toy…the list goes on.

  •  Keep in mind that young children are not misbehaving on purpose; they may have learned unacceptable behaviors because they are effective in getting their way or yanking your chain and gaining control, but they aren’t purposefully trying to drive you mad. With this perspective, you will be better able to implement limits calmly and with empathy for how hard it is for your child to learn to manage her strong desires and impulses. And when you are clear about expectations while remaining loving, and avoid a lot of anger and shaming, your child does not get consumed with upset about the “break” in the relationship with you in that moment. She is able to be calm and adapt more quickly.
  • Establish and enforce limits that you know are good for your child. Don’t assess them based on your child’s response. If you think setting limits on screen time or how many kisses you give at bedtime are good for your child (kids who get 2 or 3 are no less well-adjusted than kids who get 20)—go for it. But don’t expect your child to be happy about it, or thank you for ensuring that they get ample time to play pretend or do a puzzle versus interacting with a beloved screen. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that if your child is unhappy at times, that he is an unhappy child and you are not a good parent. Quite the opposite. So don’t fear the tantrum. Just because a child doesn’t like a limit, and is unhappy in the moment, doesn’t mean it’s not good for him. (I have yet to hear a 3-year-old say, “Thanks, Dad, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.”)
  •  A limit is only as effective as your ability to implement it. This means it is not dependent on your child’s compliance. Think about it: you can’t actually make a child clean up her toys. You can demand repeatedly that she put her things away, but as long as you are in the position of trying to convince your child to do something, she is in the driver’s seat—she is in control, and she knows it. Instead, you can clearly explain that she has two great choices: if she puts all the toys away, she can have them all to play with again tomorrow; if she chooses not to clean them all up, the ones that don’t get put away will be put in a special box, or on a shelf high up, and she won’t have those to play with for a day or two. This is a consequence you have control over and sets up a clear structure that helps your child make good decisions as she experiences the outcome of her choices. Another common example—telling a child to sit on the steps as a “time-out”. This is rarely effective as the child can keep getting up and you have to keep coaxing them to sit back down.  You can’t make a child stay on the step and attempts to do so typically lead to an increase in both the child’s and parent’s distress, raising the volume and intensity, making it less likely the child will calm down and be able to learn any lesson from the experience. It is usually much more effective to establish a place in your home that is safe and has boundaries where your child goes to cool off (that is not punishment!) when his whole mind and body is out of control (For more on this topic, go to: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/01/time-helpful-harmful-young-children/
  • Have a plan. Without a plan, reactivity rules. The child provokes a situation, such as procrastinating eating breakfast. She takes one bite every 5 minutes to delay the inevitable—brushing teeth, putting on shoes and a coat, and heading to child care. Dad starts to feel out of control—his daughter is calling the shots—and he feels his blood pressure rise. How can he make her get a move on? (Remember—any time you are trying to convince your child to do something, she is in control.)  He tries coaxing and bribing her to eat faster (which naturally results in her slowing her pace—power is oh so pleasurable to the young child). Then the reactive, right brain completely takes over and Dad crosses to the even darker side: he yanks her out of her high chair (as she is screaming “you’re hurting me” which amplifies his annoyance and adds some guilt), says all sorts of awful things to her, straps her angrily into her car seat, and everyone starts their day miserable. Sound familiar?

So, anticipate these kinds of events and have a plan that includes clear choices with consequences you can implementIt may go something like this: “Layla—we have 20 minutes for breakfast. We’ll put our friend Time Timer* on to help you keep track. When Time Timer beeps, whatever you haven’t eaten can go in your special take-away container to bring in the car in case you get hungry.” Keep in mind that you are not responsible for your child’s choices—you are in charge of offering clear and appropriate choices and implementing the consequence of your child’s decisions.

The benefits of having a plan are that: 1) it enables you to remain loving, present and supportive, while also in the driver’s seat—where you, not your child, belongs. I think of this as “responsive” versus “reactive” parenting; and, 2) your child learns to make good choices. This doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to have a total meltdown when you actually follow through—putting her food in the take-away bag when the timer goes off. But remember, that doesn’t mean your approach was wrong. Just because your child doesn’t like a limit, doesn’t mean it’s not good for her.

  • Make the choices very clear and concrete and present them with all the positivity you can muster. I’m a big fan of telling kids, in a very upbeat voice, that they have “two great choices, which is awesome!” (Children pick up on their parents’ tone which can be contagious. Approaching these encounters with tension and threat in your voice: ”If you don’t clean up those toys, I’m throwing them in the garbage”, puts them in a negative and oppositional frame of mind.) Be sure each choice you offer has a clear outcome. Layla quickly changed her approach to breakfast—eating most of her food while at the table—after just 2 days of her Dad’s newly implemented plan. Understanding clearly what her choices were, she was able to make a better decision for herself (and her dad)! Here are some examples from families I have recently worked with:
  •  If you throw the ball into the basket, you can keep playing with it. If you choose to throw it at people, the ball will go away.
  • You can cooperate with getting into pajamas and we’ll have time for one extra book because we’ll have more time; or, I’ll get you into your PJs on my own and no time for an extra book.
  • You can stay in your room and get yourself to sleep; or, we will put the gate up to help you follow the rule to stay in your room at bedtime.

The next time you find yourself in that moment when you’re about to give in on a rule you know to be a good one, remind yourself that we live in a world that doesn’t adapt to us—we have to do the adapting. Giving your child the gift of loving limits will help her be more flexible and adaptable—key ingredients for success in all aspects of her life.

*The “Time Timer” is an awesome tool for self-regulation and helping kids know exactly how much time they have for pretty much anything: book-reading at bedtime, meals, playtime, cleaning up.  Google it!
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