Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

How to Teach Your Child to Have More Tantrums

Common parental mistakes increase the frequency of toddler meltdowns.

Want your child to have more frequent tantrums, or to go on having tantrums at a later age than most children do? I'll give you some simple directions that can almost assure success.

Oh, you DON'T want them to have more tantrums? How surprising-- but you can still make use of these directions. Just make sure you don't do these things, and that no one else does them, and you won't increase the tantrum frequency.

What I am about to say applies to children who are past the toddler tantrum stage, where they fall apart when they are hungry, tired, or stressed, and when something makes them fear being separated from their nearest and dearest. The age I want to refer to is that of older toddlers and preschoolers, who do sometimes have a tantrum when they want something and don't get it-- something like cake for breakfast, or a toy temptingly displayed in the supermarket. Here are some things adults do that will train a child to have a tantrum in order to get what he wants:

1.When the tantrum begins, look around to see what other people think about it. If they look disapproving, get worried. Decide you have to do whatever it takes to get the child to calm down and stop embarrassing you. Give him or her whatever was wanted, or at least promise it for the first possible occasion. Voila: you have rewarded the child for undesirable behavior. He or she is no dope, and will recall this the next time something is refused.

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2.The same thing can happen in a different way if you are a very inattentive or disengaged parent, who rarely gives the child any attention. Now, the child is frustrated and begins a tantrum. You turn on her, yelling and threatening, and even deliver a few smacks. How can this be rewarding? It can because it involves the parental attention the child so rarely gets in response to desirable behaviors like talking, pointing, or looking toward the parent. The child is rewarded for revving up the tantrum, but not rewarded for behaving acceptably, so what would we think he or she would do?

3.All right, you've rewarded tantrums in one way or another. You are likely to get an increased level of tantrum behavior. If you now made sure you did not reward tantrums any more, after a while you would see the level drop back to where it started.

But what if you want to make sure the child goes on and on with a high level of tantrums, even though you don't reward them? The answer is a little-known secret involving a very powerful tool for shaping behavior. You reward the tantrum, not every time, but only once in a while when you can't stand it any more. This teaches the child that in order to get one reward, she has to have many tantrums. When you do not give the reward, the child does not think that she won't be rewarded again; she thinks she is getting closer to the one tantrum that will be rewarded. That moment when the adult slips and gives the wrong response to the tantrum has power to shape behavior, far beyond all the times when the tantrum was handled better.

These ways to increase tantrum frequency can work in reverse, if you are careful not to do them. But what should you do, if like most normal parents you want fewer tantrums, not more? Can or should you punish a child to stop tantrums? No, this probably won't work. For one thing, if part of the motivation for the tantrum is the child's existing stress, increasing the stress through punishment is not likely to help stop this or future tantrums. For a second thing, punishment is actually not a very effective way of changing behavior, in spite of the fact that humans have been using it on each other for thousands of years. If the child has been getting very little adult attention, punishment may even act as a reward, as I mentioned earlier.

Ignoring tantrums is the most effective way to prevent a preschooler from developing a tantrum strategy for getting what he or she wants. From a practical point of view, however, this is not always completely possible. A flailing, screaming preschooler in a supermarket aisle really has to be dealt with in some way. Prevention, by keeping the child in the cart, is an excellent idea, because if there is a fuss you still have the option of pushing child and cart to a less-crowded part of the store. If necessary, you might simply take the child out of the store until calm is restored, although this may mean you have to leave behind your carefully-filled cart of groceries. The best choice is whatever you can do under the circumstances that gives the child the least possible reward for the behavior.

But remember, a younger or more stressed-out child may have no control over tantrums. If this seems to be the case, the adult's job is calming and comforting, not controlling rewards.
Once again, I will be disabling comments on this post because of cyberbullying attacks. I hope to be able to entertain discussion in the near future.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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