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The Competent Parent: On Temper Tantrums

Welcome to a new online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

1. My 5 year old son who is caring, sharing and giving can also be extremely rough, wild and erratic. He still has temper tantrums when he does not get his way. He has always been challenging and it’s difficult to show him how to do something because he thinks he knows everything and never wants anyone to show him how. His teacher even says she knows he’s smart but because he only wants to do things his way, it’s hard to know if he knows what she is trying to teach. He has a difficult time transitioning. He has always been challenging and I love that he is strong and determined but I also need him to cooperate and be a team player with our family. He pushes every sitter to the limit. How do I help him at home and at school without breaking his spirit because he will need that determination as an adult?

Sincerely, Determined

Headshot2011Dear Determined,

Your signature is a possible clue. Persistence is an inherited behavior. In the theory of Temperament Differences, we all range from low to high on nine inheritable traits, one of which explains a “strong willed” child.  Your son appears to be one who knows his mind. This causes difficulties, as you mentioned, for teachers, parents, and others who have different ideas than he has. This is great when he needs to entertain himself – strong willed individuals are usually very creative – but when he senses opposition to his idea, his natural tendency would be to hold on more strongly to it.

In the book Your Difficult Child, Stanley Turecki (Random House, 2000) advises an effective strategy for discipline. Your son, more than a less-tenacious child, needs clear and consistently enforced limits. As soon as you realize you and he are at odds, decide the limit and stick to it. For example, he goes for the box of crackers just before dinner time. Immediately decide how many he can have, if any, relative to how soon dinner will be ready and how low his blood sugar may be according to his last snack. If he pitches a fit when you put the box away, so be it. Restate your limit and your reason and go on about your business.

Turecki likens this to holding a door wide open, “Yes, you may have two crackers” or bolting it firmly shut, “Too close to dinner time.”  If you waver between yes and no, he takes that as an open door – permission to have as many crackers as he wants.  “Well, maybe one. . . All right just one more. . . Not too many, dinner’s almost ready. . .” Soon he’s eaten way more than you would have wanted him to and you feel angry.  “Why are you eating all these crackers when I’m about to put dinner on the table?!?!”

In a quiet moment, after he’s eaten his dinner and you both can be more rational, help him see the pattern he can expect in the future. The strong-willed child needs as much predictability as possible. For example, “If dinner is fifteen minutes away, two crackers will hold you.” Or, “If dinner is almost on the table, you can help to set things out so it will be faster, but you don’t need any crackers.” Then be ready to hold your guard at the decision.

A good analogy is the drive-in window at the bank. Either you’re in line in time, or you’re not. Nothing personal. The teller closes the blinds after the last car, even if there are more waiting. A hissy fit doesn’t let you do your banking after hours. After a few disappointments, you learn you might as well drive on past if it’s too close to closing time.  And if you really need to accomplish your banking, you manage your time differently.

Because of the energy it will take to hold on to the limits you’ve set, you need to pick your battles. More than other children, the strong willed child loves to figure his own way out of minor difficulties, but he needs to know that you can be counted on keep to him out of serious trouble.  He needs plenty of freedom, but steadfast controls when necessary.

Think about the typical conflicts you have with your son and decide which ones could most adversely affect him if you couldn’t hold your ground. If his “rough, wild, and erratic” behavior is unsafe for him or for others, create a safe space for him to play at home until he learns that you mean business with your limits.

The determined child requires a decisive adult who is sure that her limits are worth enforcing. He needs consistent limits not only from both parents, but teachers and sitters as well. No matter which adult is on duty, the answer would be the same. One exception to a rule – the teller allows you to make a deposit when you’ve pulled up to the window at 7:01 – and he will expect he can break that rule any time he wants to.

With a little practice, you will both be more confident that he is always in good hands.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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