My 3-year-old daughter was born screaming with tremendous, outrageous screams that seemed to rattle the walls. I've tried to be careful not to give in when she throws a tantrum, but she does it even when she gets what she wants. She's doing a little better now that she can communicate, but she still has outrageous reactions to things and at least one or two major tantrums a day. She almost never acts this way when she's with others, so maybe it's because I'm the one who disciplines her and doesn't give in to her tantrum. I'm wondering if she needs professional help or if her attitude is typical of a strong-willed child.
A. Let me address the last part of your question first. If the tantrums last only a few minutes (seven or less), your child is pretty normal. If these tantrums are 20-30 minute crying jags, there is possibly a more serious problem that needs professional attention from a Christian family specialist.
Next I want to focus on some helpful ways you can deal with your daughter's angry outbursts. It's good that you're not giving in to her tantrums, but I'd like you to consider that there might be some hidden reinforcers in the tantrum behavior. Often, children throw tantrums not only to get the thing they're asking for, but to get the attention of their parents. It could be that your daughter gets more time with you if she engages you in a battle. Even if you're refusing her requests, you might still be giving her the attention she's trying to get.
Instead of reacting to your daughter's tantrum, simply put her in a time out the moment she starts to gear up for an all-out fit. When she's calm, reward her for good anger management by reading a book or playing a game together. When she learns that her tantrums lead to less attention from you, she may start to change her behavior.
Children can also be a bit like wild animals; they can sense fear. In other words, if your daughter believes she can control your reaction by her actions, she will unconsciously try to push you harder. Do your best to stay cool as you take her to her time out and tell her you'll return when she's ready to talk to you in a calm, quiet voice.
Because anger is a perfectly normal, God-given emotion, you need to give your daughter healthy ways of expressing her anger, rather than trying to squelch it. When she feels angry, let her rip up a piece of paper, then put the pieces in the garbage. Give her permission to say, "I'm so mad!" Have her color vigorously on a piece of old newspaper or draw a picture of how she feels. Hand her a pillow to hit. Teach her to take deep breaths to help herself cool down. Praise her when she handles her anger in appropriate ways.
Take a moment to jot down the good behaviors you see in public. Target three of those behaviors you can work on with her at home. Choose a moment when your daughter is calm and have her join you and your husband to talk about these behaviors. Tell her how proud you are of her for the way she acts when she's with other people. Let her know that you now expect to see these behaviors at home as well, and spell out the rewards and consequences that will result from her behavior. This is the perfect time to show your daughter that you are serious about helping shape her behavior. Dealing with this now will save you a great deal of heartache down the road.
This kind of difficult parent/child relationship can take it's toll on your feelings for your daughter. Ask God to help you rewrite her story so that it becomes one of joy and hope, not frustration and anger.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones (W).
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