Sometimes a single conversational misstep with a five-year-old can cause the cherubic face that so beguiled you just a moment ago to become twisted and red with demonic rage.  There is huffing and there is puffing.  There is foot-stomping and head-jerking.  There are miniature fists balled in frustration flailing at air.  Your child appears genuinely possessed.  There are hot tears running.  But most of all, there is screaming.  Holy cow, is there screaming.  Like that of a banshee awaiting damnation. 

Five-year-olds aren’t the only ones capable of throwing a world-class fit.  Adult tantrums are often accompanied by many of the same distasteful behaviors.  We clench our jaws and ball our fists.  If things escalate, we raise our voices and go red in the face.

As a former dolphin trainer, I have occasionally seen dolphins respond to unpleasant circumstances with the marine mammal version of a perfect storm.  Some dolphins vault high into the air and angle their bodies to the side before landing so as to produce a thunderingly loud, bellyflop-like smack of protestation when hitting the water.  Other dolphins slap loudly at the water’s surface with tail flukes and perform herky-jerky swims reminiscent of a human child’s angry foot-stomping. 

Why, oh, why are hissy fits such a universal (even if extreme) tool in the behavioral tool-boxes of even the most intelligent social animals?  To answer that, we need only pause long enough to consider how others respond to such distasteful displays of distemper. 

Of course, one response to a fit of anger is to get out of the way.  Which, naturally, leaves the tantrum-thrower free to go about his business – in precisely the manner he chooses without any interference from others.  Such freedom is often – in and of itself – rewarding enough to set the stage for future tantrums. 

At other times, tantrums provide even more immediately rewarding responses.  The child gets a candy.  The adult obtains an extension on a deadline or a reduction in price at the checkout counter.  The dolphin – if working with a novice and not-very-effective trainer – may garner an unearned fish or two.  All for behaving rather badly. 

Put on the brakes by withholding the candy, sticking to the deadline, not tossing the unearned fish – and tantrum-throwing behavior will generally . . .

Alas, get even worse before getting better. 

That’s because of what behavioral psychologists call extinction bursts, a dramatic increase, or flurry, of behavior brought about by the withdrawal of expected reinforcements. 

Think of it by imagining yourself the owner of a car that has worked reliably for years.  One day, you put the key in the ignition, turn the key like you always do and . . .  absolutely nothing happens. 

What do you do next? 

Considering that you’ve established a long behavioral history of having key-turning behavior immediately rewarded by the sound of a purring engine, you likely try again. 

Not just once or twice, but several times.  When nothing happens, you’re still not done trying.  You caress the dashboard, talk to the car.  When reasoning doesn’t work, you beg, cajole, or plead.  Still nothing doing?  You may resort to curses and threats. 

In short, you burst into a flurry of activity before finally giving up.  That’s an extinction burst. 

If, during the extinction burst, the car’s engine hints even once that it might start up again, the promise of reward – however feeble – will prolong the flurry of effort to get the car going.

Which means, naturally, that curbing tantrums requires not caving in, lest the perpetrator learns to bully his way toward unearned rewards – a habit that can go unchecked for many years to come.  Just as damaging can be the temptation to quash the tantrum with a fit of one’s own.  But a raised voice laced with harsh tones threatening punishment can leave the tantrum-thrower feeling unheard and disrespected – an approach likely to fuel tantrums rather than quiet them. 

First do whatever is called for to insure your own safety as well as the safety of others because – let’s face it – a tantrum is a form of aggressive display that can potentially spill over into violence. 

Once the basic need for safety is satisfied, institute a time-out of sorts by deliberately assuming a clearly relaxed, patient, and non-threatening stance while telling the ranter that you’ll be happy to discuss whatever the problem might be at a time when tempers aren’t running so high.  The overall message should be something like, “There’s nothing wrong here that can’t be fixed with a little time and patience.”  It’s often surprising how tantrums melt away when they simply stop working.   

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017

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