Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Temper Tantrums—Intense in Public


Hi! I am the mother of a 3-year-old girl and a 6-month-old son. My question concerns my daughter. She is bright, curious, outgoing and extremely affectionate. However, since she was younger than one, she has always been prone to extreme tantrums. I have read every single one of your books and apply the ideas consistently. I have a lot of faith and confidence in the Positive Discipline philosophy. I believe it has had a remarkable effect on my daughter. My husband and I are trying to teach her (during moments of calm) how to manage her anger and frustration (deep breathing, going to a "special place" to calm down -with or without Mommy, playing with her toys or stuffed animals). Also, I try very hard not to engage in power struggles, since it seems that most of her outbursts relate to misguided power. (Ex: I leave the room without saying anything if she starts to throw her toys. After she calms down, I ask her to pick them up and she always does.) This approach works phenomenally well at home. She gets over her (minor) tantrums and we move on with the day. The problem is in public!!!!

I can't just "walk away" and disengage when she has a tantrum in public. The thing is, her tantrums in public are the worst tantrums I have ever witnessed or imagined in my life (and I'm a teacher and have taught many different age groups). Obviously, I absolutely can't reason with her or talk to her because she's hitting, kicking, punching my face (which really hurts and is embarrassing), banging things and screaming. When she was younger, I simply carried her to the car and kindly and firmly put her in her car seat and drove home. But now she is about 38 pounds. I'm a small person and yesterday when she had a tantrum in the library and I tried to put her in the car, I physically could not do it. I tried to wait for her to calm down, but she was MANIACAL. Someone offered to help me put the baby in the car, but no one could help me with her! I physically can't handle these maniacal tantrums now that she's heavier and I have a baby to shuttle around. How do I handle this kindly and firmly? She will NOT calm down in front of an
audience, so staying anywhere and waiting for her to calm down is not an option. Please help!!! I dread taking her to the most mundane places because I'm afraid of an outburst.

By the way, the tantrum occurred because the library put a new computer in
the children's section with children's software. Before story time, my daughter saw the computer and wanted to play with it. The librarian said that she would turn it on after storytime. My daughter was very cooperative about that. However, after story time two problems occurred: 1) Other children stormed to the computer and my daughter thought she was allowed to be first, and 2)The librarian could not figure out how to turn it on and said everybody would have to wait until next week. Within 10 seconds, my daughter turned into a completely different human being!!!


Robyn, You have my empathy--especially since it sounds like you are doing all the "right" things. You probably read about temperaments in Positive Discipline the First Three Years and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, so you know about Intensity of Reactions. A quote from the first book follows:

Children often respond to events around them in different ways. Some smile quietly or merely take a look, then go back to what they were doing; others react with action and emotion. Some children wear their hearts on their little sleeves; they giggle and shriek with laughter when happy and throw impressive tantrums when angry.

One of my favorite quotes from a book by Charlie Shedd called, Letters to Karen is:

A person's faults are the price you pay for their virtues. I'm sure that your daughter's extreme intensify of reaction includes many delightful virtues. So, what to do about the "faults?"

1) Some of this you just may have to live through and "try" not to be bothered about what others think. As she gets older, you can teach her more about managing her tantrums.

2) Know that some of her behavior may be influenced by feeling "dethroned" by the birth of a baby brother. Go to and click on the "video of Dr. Nelsen" and watch the top one on "dealing with the belief behind the behavior."
These first two suggestions are just about understanding her.

3) It may help to sincerely validate her feelings. You can listen to a wonderful example by going to and scroll down to the left and click on podcast and list to No. 46 on Taming Temper Tantrums. After doing this interview with Aisha, I was attending a birthday party for my one-year-old grandson. A three-year-old really wanted to open his presents. She had a temper tantrum when her mother wouldn't let her. I went over to them and asked the mother, "Can I try something." She gave her permission so I knelt know in front of the little girl having a tantrum and said, "You are really mad that you can't have those presents. You really want those presents." She stopped crying and snuggled into her Mom's lap. It is very important that validating feelings not be done in a mocking manner, but really trying to help the child feel "felt."

Of course, nothing works every time or with every child. However this suggestion goes along with the importance of just letting children have their feelings without trying to fix them or take them away. Just letting children have their feelings helps them learn that they pass and that they can survive disappointment.

4) By the time she is four, it will be very important to get her involved in family meetings and joint problem-solving sessions where she can practice using her problem-solving skills to find solutions to her dilemmas. During a calm time, you can start doing this with her now. Just don't expect the skills to "kick in" until she is four because of brain development.

5) Part of the the above can to use "curiosity questions," to get into her world and help her think for herself instead of "telling" her what to think. It might go something like this (but don't use a script--be in the moment and come from you heart). After she has calmed down, ask her what happened, how she felt about it, what other might be feeling (no lectures here), and what are her ideas to solve the problem? Of course, this doesn't solve the problem at the time of the tantrum, but it can be preventative--the more she learns to think in terms of finding solutions. This is a great way to teach children to use their personal power in constructive ways which decreases their need to misbehave as a mistaken way to use their power.

6) Since she is too big to remove her, use the tool of "deciding what you will do." Let her know in advance. This may be very hard in public, but you may want to let her know that you will just leave the room. (Remember, it is more important to help your child learn that to be concerned about what others think.) It could be that you'll become "the tickle monster" who tickles children who are having a tantrum. It could be that you have a special paper bag that you can put over your head. You could write on it, "I'm having faith in my daughter to learn that she can survive disappointment." I want to repeat, let her know in advance what you are going to do--and even role-play with her during a calm time. Whatever you do, it must be both kind and firm at the same time--never humiliating. (I know you already know this, but others who read it may not.)

7) Ask for a hug. Listen to podcast No.39 for a great story about the power of a hug.

8) As she gets older, you can teach her about positive time out. A good podcast to help you get ready for this is No. 47. (And, of course, it is explained more thoroughly in all of the Positive Discipline books.

These are just a few suggestions. Have you read about Temper Tantrums in Positive Discipline A-Z? That includes many more possibilities. Hopefully, one of these will help.

1 comment:


My grandaughter had such atantrum I had never seen before. Her mother says she does this2-3 times aday. Her Mother owns the daycare where me granddaughter sikept. She repedivily says the same hting over and over. She bit me and kicked me and hit herself. SAll she wanted was her Mother. I thought it was a sezure. After it was over, it was like she had no memory of the event.