Tackling Tantrums and Challenging Behaviors Series Part 3: The ABC’s

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

Consider the ABC’s around the tantrum

Let’s talk about behavior terms. The ABC acronym stands for antecedent, behavior and consequence. The A stands for the antecedent — what happens right before the behavior. The B stands for the behavior – in this case the tantrum. The C stands for consequence — what happens after the behavior. This requires you to pay close attention to the whole process. As a speech therapist, I am continually applying this model when I’m trying to reduce behaviors that are interfering with a child’s learning. 

kid jumping

Antecedent

In one example, I was working with a child with limited verbal output or expressive language. When I asked her to follow directions using objects, she began to throw toys and swipe materials off the therapy table. This could be happening for two reasons: She may be avoiding the demand I placed on her, or what I asked her to do was too hard so she responded by throwing. 

The antecedent in this case was the demand. I asked her to follow directions using objects. After paying close attention, I realized the directions I gave her were too difficult. She didn’t have the language to express herself. Therefore, her response was to throw the toys. I didn’t want to abandon the task because I knew I could get her to do it, but I had to simplify the directions so she could be successful. As a therapist, I mix in easy tasks with challenging tasks to help the children increase their responses, gain confidence and stay motivated. If everything is too hard, I would lose compliance. 

Considering what happens right before a tantrum or an undesired behavior can help identify a pattern. For example, you may notice that every time you ask your child to clean up their toys, a tantrum ensues. If we want to eliminate the tantrum, try these options ahead of clean up time. 

• Give a 5 five-minute warning that it’s almost time to clean up, so the transition is not abrupt. 

• Frame the event before they start to play and remind them about what’s expected when it’s time to clean up. 

• Allow them to leave two favorite toys out. This reduces the fear of permanently putting their toy away. It also gives them a sense of control in the process.

• Select two favorite toys to transition with your child. For example, if you’re cleaning up because it’s time to rest, take the Paw Patrol characters and prepare them to rest too.

Consequence

How you respond to a tantrum or an undesired behavior plays a large role. This one is important and consistency matters. What I’ve seen — and done myself throughout the years — is this: The child throws a tantrum, you put up with it as long as you can and then concede. You give them back whatever item it is that prompted the tantrum in the first place. 

This has happened to everyone. Remove any feelings of guilt or blame as they will not serve you or your child moving forward. That being said, it’s important that this does not become a pattern. I promise you their will is stronger. They’ll win. 

A boy walking
A boy walking

Here are a few consequence suggestions:

1. Ignore it. 

This one works for many kids, but it’s exhausting and if you’re out in public it’s twice as hard. There is always a gain for the child when they’re having a tantrum, and in some cases, they really love the attention. Ignoring it can reduce the value of the tantrum for the child. Try your best not to give in, despite the intensity of the tantrum.

When we go to undue this pattern of giving in, it will get worse before it gets better. Your child is strong-willed. Once you’ve created a pattern of giving in, they’re going to fight harder because it has worked in the past. Buckle up and get ready because it will be exhausting. If you stay the course, the tantrums will subside. You have to eliminate the value of the tantrum otherwise they’ll keep doing it. 

2. Be careful to not give secondary reinforcement.

This one is the one I see parents do the most. What does secondary reinforcement look like? Your child has a tantrum because she doesn’t want to share a toy. The time has come to pass the toy on, and a tantrum ensues. It’s well-intended, but the parent will often give a secondary item to calm the child down. The parent will walk over, hug the child, tell her it’s ok in a very soothing voice, and then offer another toy or activity.

Think of the payoff for the child there. Sharing is an appropriate expectation — you don’t need to coddle her. If she chooses to respond with a tantrum, let her. This is when ignoring works wonders. Otherwise, every time your child doesn’t get her way, she will have a tantrum because it will result in something else happening that she enjoys, even if it’s not what originally prompted the tantrum. 

One year when I was teaching a class of 4 year -olds, I had a little guy who had a difficult time when things didn’t go his way. He was loving, fun, playful, and in the blink of an eye he would spiral into some of the most intense tantrums. In an effort to curb the intensity of his tantrums, myself and the other parent helpers in the room would go over to him and try to appease him with something else. Often, we would take him to the reading corner, and read to him. He had our full undivided attention. 

kid painting

This worked and it would calm him down, but it was a short-sighted solution. One day he began to throw a tantrum because his turn ended at the sensory table. I walked over and tried comforting him and offered to read him a story. We sat down to read and a few of the other children came over to join us. He did not like that. He wanted my undivided attention. I told him the other children were welcome to stay with us and hear the story. He wasn’t happy and a second tantrum began. 

The next day I told my helpers when he cries today, we will validate that he is upset, let him know we’re here if he needs us and that’s it. I knew he was going to have a difficult time, but I also knew that I created this problem. As I told you earlier, when we go to undue a pattern, it will get worse before it gets better. 

That morning he got upset because it was not his turn to play in the building area. He threw a tantrum of epic proportions, all while looking over at me. I told him, “I know you’re upset, but it will be your turn soon. I have to go help our friends.”

He cried and screamed even louder. It was the kind of screaming where every vein in his neck was visible. I let him.

The more I ignored him, the more intense the tantrum became. This is to be expected. After he gave it his all, he started to look around the classroom at all of his friends playing, creating, laughing and enjoying the morning. He was tired from the tantrum, but you could see he realized he was missing out on other things. He got up, walked over to the other children and began playing like nothing happened. 


The next day, the tantrum lasted 5 five minutes and the day after that, he said, “oh man,” put his head down, and then quickly transitioned to a new activity. 

We were lucky. In other instances — in particular in the home setting — it can take children much longer to unlearn a pattern of behavior. 

When we use secondary reinforcement with children when they throw a tantrum we are only making it worse, even though it seems like a solution at the time. The desire to make a second offering is rooted in an insecure feeling. We as parents don’t like to see our kids, sad, disappointed or upset. It’s ok for them to cry out of disappointment when they don’t get their way. As adults we still feel bad if things don’t work out the way we want. But it’s a process and we learn every time we’re disappointed how to cope. 

It’s no different for children. The little guy that was crying realized on his own that “I’m wasting all this time crying when I could go play or do something else.” He learned to pivot when he saw his tantrum no longer had any value or gain. I didn’t tell him those things, he discovered this on his own. Children are astute and observant all the time. We assume they’re fragile, but if we allow for them to experience disappointment, they will find their way. We don’t always have to give them the answer or save the day. They got it. 

decoration on the street

Consistency is key

This one matters the most. I am an avid reader, and one of my favorite books is “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. One of his four agreements is to be impeccable with your word. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Words carry weight, and they’re how we express our thoughts. The minute we say something to our kids — If you throw your toy one more time, I’m taking it away — you have to do it. Otherwise, they learn that you are not impeccable with your word. 

Dad and daughter playing

I think parents understand this on a cerebral level but have a hard time implementing it. I get it, we’re tired. Life is busy and sometimes we don’t have time for kids to have a tantrum. We have to get to work, school, practice, etc. I’ve been there. But, every time we say something and do the opposite, they’re taking inventory. Your words stop carrying any weight. So don’t make a threat you can’t keep. This happens all the time. Here are some common examples:.

If you don’t listen, we’re going home. 

Reality: This is always said when you know full in and well you can’t go home.

Ok, if you don’t stop we’re not going on vacation. 

Reality: You know you are not canceling your vacation.

Ok if you don’t come here right now, mommy’s leaving. 

Reality: You’re not going to leave them.

Ok, I guess Santa’s not coming.

Reality: You’re not going to cancel Christmas or their birthday or any other holiday.

We use these false threats because in the short term they work. The problem is just that:, They work only in the short term. At one point – especially if you have a child who’s strong-willed – they will call your bluff. They won’t listen, and sure enough, vacation is still happening along with Christmas. Now you’re in trouble because they’ve just learned your threats are empty.

The more consistent you are, the easier parenting becomes. Kiddos do better when they have boundaries. Especially because young children are not yet capable of establishing their own. As they get older, we need to step back and give them opportunities to practice making their own decisions and setting boundaries. But until then, it’s up to you to help them out. 

All parents experience tantrums and challenging behaviors. It’s universal. It’s how children grow and learn. They’re figuring out their environment and what role they have in it. Children realize they have autonomy over themselves, and they can say no. Once they realize they have agency over what happens to them, they will explore what that means. Testing a parent is par for the course. Just know, that staying consistent, considering their needs, and being impeccable with your word lays a strong foundation for them as they grow. 

Kid swimming

To set boundaries, is to love. Setting boundaries and, staying consistent, will upset children sometimes. That’s ok. When we establish boundaries as adults, it’s a form of self-care. It’s no different when you do this for your child. 

Overtime, as you implement these strategies, your kids will be healthier and happier. Dare I say it, you may even feel balanced — sometimes at least. Parenting is a journey meant for us to make mistakes and learn. As exhausting and tiring as it is, breathe and find the joy in these moments. This I know for sure: One day this will all be in your rear-view mirror, and you’ll ask yourself, where did the time go?

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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