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Advice for Parents on Tantrums
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The federal government shutdown has made me sick of politics. For a political columnist, this can be tricky, but taking a break from politics also offers an opportunity. This week, I thought I would write a column about what I’ve learned as a father of two spirited boys, and offer my advice on how to handle tantrums.
As toddlers, their screaming fits were loud and embarrassing but comparatively easy to deal. Nothing shuts down a trip to the grocery store like an overwrought child writhing on the floor, howling with outrage that his mom or dad won’t buy him a box of sugary cereal. The child will flail about, obstructing the shoppers to push their carts down the aisle, and his pained cries will make onlookers want to do anything to make it stop. We’ve all been there.
Uninformed observers will wonder why the parent doesn’t negotiate, or unfairly assume that both parties share some blame. Ignore them and stand firm. Negotiating to end tantrums only teaches the child that throwing tantrums gets results, causing an endless cycle of hostage-taking every time you need to buy a loaf of bread. Teach your child that they “own” their behavior and the resulting consequences.
Another tactic your toddler may discover is the “rag doll” move. Upon exhausting all other ways to avoid doing an unpleasant task-going to the doctor, for instance-your little diaper jockey may go completely limp and force you to pick him up and carry him. For some unknown reason, a limp child is, pound for pound, twice as heavy as a normal child and can seem impossible to move. And when you do move him, you may discover that “dragging kicking and screaming” is not a charming metaphor but an actual instruction for parenting.
Do not attempt to explain the virtues of going to the doctor. It matters little to a child in the throes of a tantrum that going to the doctor makes sense. Do not refer to his long history of going to the doctor, or the fact that he has thrown a fit 43 times in a row with zero effect other than trying the patience of his parents. Precedence carries no weight with the purple-faced fury of frustration. You cannot reason with the unreasonable. Sometimes the parents need to learn this lesson over and over again.
When your child enters adolescence, your challenges become more difficult as your child’s brain grows, increasing their capacity for mayhem. They might turn every conflict into a pitched battle, demanding their right to relitigate basic family functions-gassing up dad’s car after borrowing it, for example. A teen might even raise myriad ridiculous arguments to avoid meeting his responsibilities by engaging you in pointless and lengthy discussions.
A lot of this has to do with adolescents wanting to have a voice. So, let him talk even if it’s pointless prattle for 21 hours straight. Resist the urge to overreact to provocations or correct egregious misstatements of fact. Let the future father of your grandchildren talk until he can no longer stand. Let the boy talk though the sound of his voice may make you want to scrape the flesh from your face with a spoon. He must have his say.
And then you need to explain, patiently but firmly, that his personal objections can’t come at the expense of the common good. A family can’t shut down its regular business because one person has an objection. Even if your child takes a long time to learn this lesson, don’t worry. You never see adults acting this way, do you?
Above all, when your child is throwing a tantrum you must remember the most important thing: You’re the adult. Just because someone you love and cherish is acting like stubborn twerp doesn’t mean you should, too. I hope this helps. For some reason, it’s been on my mind lately. Next week, I’ll get back to writing about politics.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.