Dear Mr. Dad: My 3-year old throws tantrums all the time. When she does it at home, I can handle it, but when we're out in public and she goes nuts, I find it very hard to cope. I've tried time outs, taking away treats, and pretty much everything else short of spanking, which I don't ever want to do. But she just keeps on resorting to tantrums as a way to get what she wants, and I have to admit that sometimes I give in just to get her to calm down. What can I do to get her to find other ways to express herself?
A: The first thing you need to do is stop giving in. Ever. By caving to your daughter's blackmail (and that's exactly what it is), you've told her that if she keeps the tantrum up for long enough, you'll eventually pay up. But you're not going to do that anymore, right? Let's talk about some better approaches.
One of the most effective ways of dealing with a tantrum is to ignore it. If you're at home, just turn around and walk out of the room (not too far, though -- you want to make sure your daughter's not going to be able to hurt herself or anything else). Without an audience, pitching a tantrum is lot less effective. Naturally, this approach isn't going to work if your daughter has thrown herself down in the middle of the cookie aisle in the grocery store. In cases like that, pick her up and take her to the car, where she can scream to her heart's content while you stand outside checking your email on your phone (or at least pretending to -- the point is for her to see that you're not paying attention to her).
Ignoring tantrums is great, but wouldn't it be even better if you could keep them from happening at all? One way to do that is to keep track of the times and places your daughter does her tantrums. If she's tired or hungry, for example, taking her food shopping will have predictable results.
Another tantrum-avoidance technique is to talk with your daughter before you go out and make sure that she knows exactly what kind of behavior you're expecting. You might also want to offer a small incentive -- "If you behave nicely while we're out, I'll make your favorite dessert when we get home." This is different from a bribe, which is paid in advance. Praise your daughter's calm behavior a few times during your outing. Although they don't always act like it, kids really do want to please us.
Perhaps the best tantrum-preventing idea I've heard comes from Dr. Myrna Shure, author of "Thinking Parent, Thinking Child." It's what Shure calls the "same/different game," which goes like this: During a calm time, ask her to pay attention to you while you do two things, such as clapping your hands and flapping your arms. Then ask, "Did I do the same thing or something different?" Of course, she'll say "different." Play the game for a few minutes every day and make it fun by incorporating some silliness (asking, for example, whether a goldfish and a dog are the same or different).
Next time your daughter starts down a road you know ends in a tantrum, say "Can you think of a different way to tell me what you want?" Chances are, that'll stop her in her tracks. This technique -- which I know sounds painfully simple -- is part of Shure's "I Can Problem Solve" method, which, for more than 30 years, has been shown to be extremely effective. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c)2017 Armin Brott
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