Tackling Tantrums and Challenging Behaviors Series Part 1: Framing

This article is part 1 of a 3-part series that shares best practices for parents to address and mitigate tantrums and challenging behaviors. Read part 2 and part 3

We all know how overwhelming tantrums can be. Some are quick and painless, and others can last far too long. As a parent, when you’re in the middle of it, it can be depleting. There are a few different approaches parents can use to address tantrums. You’ll want to think about your situation, your kiddo and what he or she will respond best to. As a parent of now teenagers, I promise you this: Tantrums are a phase. Just breathe and know, that one day this too shall pass.

Picture of sunset
Picture of sunset

Priming/framing

Priming or framing is when you try to get ahead of the tantrum. Priming is a psychology term, and in its simplest form it means, exposure to one stimulus will have an effect on your response to a second stimulus. For the purposes of tantrums, I like to use the word framing because you’re framing the event that triggers the tantrum ahead of time. 

You’ll want to pay close attention to what your child’s triggers are. For example, some kids have difficulty with transitions, or as it gets closer to their nap time, the fatigue sets in and they’re more likely to have a tantrum. For some children, it may occur as they get hungry. Yes, kids can get hangry. Consider when the tantrum occurs, what the cause is and try to get ahead of it.

When my son was 3 years-old he hated transitions, especially if he was having fun. If we left the park before his playmates did, an epic tantrum would ensue. To remedy this, before we got to the park I talked to him about what to expect. This is how I framed it. 

Kids swimming
Kids swimming

We’re about to go to the park, but we can only stay for a short time. Your friends may still be there when it’s time to leave. You are going to be very upset, but when I say it’s time to go, I need you to say bye to your friends, come hold my hand and get ready to leave. If you listen, we will come back to the park tomorrow. 

Or, you could say: 

If you walk over when it’s time to go without screaming and crying there will be something special waiting for you. 

You may need to do this initially until your child can work through the transition. Once he’s successful you can reduce the positive reinforcement — the special treat — because he will become accustomed to leaving when you say it’s time. 

In either case, you want to present the information to your child before the event happens. Depending on your child’s language skills, you could have them him recite back what was discussed. I used a fill in the blank format with my son, where he would fill in the blank.. 

Ok, let’s go over what we just talked about.

We’re going to the______ (park).

We’re going to play with _____ (my friends).

When it’s time to go, even though I know you’ll be sad, you need to_______________ (listen).

If you listen you’ll get___________ (a surprise).

Children will always do better when things are predictable, structured and consistent. By framing the event ahead of time you’re giving them a road map for success. If you try to intervene as the tantrum is happening, it’s much more difficult to remedy. They’re emotionally dysregulated and incapable of taking in whatever it is you’re saying. 

Framing is similar to what we do as adults when we plan our day or week. We consider the events of the day, the order in which things will occur and we anticipate where the bumps may happen. Depending on what the challenge is, it can help prepare us for moments in the day that may require more patience, calm, tenacity, perseverance, whatever it may be.

Mom and daughter walking
Mom and daughter walking

Impulsivity in Children

Children who are impulsive tend to benefit when you use framing. One year when I was teaching, I had a kiddo in my class who struggled with impulsivity. He became agitated quickly if someone took a toy or knocked down a tower he was building. He would get upset and without thinking, he would strike back by hitting his friends. His responses were intense, impulsive and automatic in nature. 

I had to get ahead of this and interrupt his pattern of response. I sat him down and I said:

When you’re playing today, something might go wrong. A friend may accidentally knock your tower down, they may take a toy, or tell you they want the blocks before you’re done. You will get mad, and you will try to hit them. It’s not Ok to hit. Instead, when you get upset, I need you to put your hands in your pockets and call my name. That’s it. I will come over right away and figure out how to solve the problem. But I need you to keep your hands on your body. (I talked to his mom beforehand and told her to make sure he wore pants with pockets).

We walked through it one more time using a fill in the blank format.

When you’re playing, someone may_______ (take my toys, knock down my tower, etc.).

You will feel________ (mad).

But we can’t __________ (hit our friends).

Instead you will put your hands in your_______ (pockets) and call _________ (for you).

Thirty minutes later a child walked by his tower and accidentally bumped into it, causing the top three blocks to fall. I watched, waiting to see what he was going to do. He became enraged and was about to hit his friend when he stopped. He stuck his hands in his pockets with extreme force and yelled my name. It worked! I had to interrupt the pattern which became automatic to him. 

Because he was so impulsive, I could not give him more directions than that. I couldn’t say: use your words, talk it out or don’t hit. It wouldn’t have worked. He needed a physical prompt to redirect him. I just needed to create enough space to interrupt his response. We would work on figuring out the rest later, which we did. 

Little boy reading a book while he smile
Little boy reading a book while he smile

Framing the situation, and identifying the trigger, gave him a road map to rely on instead of me scrambling to think of one in the midst of his emotionally heightened state. It took time, but he realized we could remedy the problem without hitting our friends. No, he did not need to wear pants with pockets forever. Overtime he learned to solve the problem without resorting to hitting. 

Throughout the years, framing is one of the methods I’ve seen work best. This goes hand in hand with the second part of this series which is to create a routine that will set your kiddos up for success. 

AlbionaBW-01

Hi, I'm Albiona!

I have over 20 years of experience working with children and families, first as an early childhood educator and currently as a pediatric speech and language pathologist. I’m also a mom of two amazing humans, a writer, and life long learner. My hope is to help parents reframe the way they interpret their child’s behavior while reflecting on their parenting journey.

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