Thursday, November 17, 2011

Researchers Find Clear-cut Ways to Stop Tantrums

Picture this: your child wants the cereal in the red box, in which the number one ingredient is sugar and you reply with a firm "no." She begins to whine and you gently reassert: "no." The whine turns into a cry, accompanied by a look of pure abandonment. "I'm sorry honey, that stuff is not good for you." The cry turns into a scream as she falls on the floor in total heartbreak. At this point you begin to notice the people staring down the aisle to find out how horribly you've abused your child as her screams are transformed into hyperventilating. You scoop her up, leave the cart of groceries in the aisle, and head home to come to terms with the fact that the shopping will have to wait for another day. Sound familiar? Time-outs, withholding treats and other conventional disciplinary methods don't always work to teach a child good behavior, but thankfully there are some sure-fire techniques on the horizon.

Yale Unversity and King's College have teamed up to find effective long-term strategies for quelling tantrums. Parent Management Training, the system they helped cultivate, focuses on three factors, called the ABCs. "A" stands for Antecedent - the environment or situation that sets the stage for a tantrum. "B" stands for Behavior and encourages healthy behavior when faced with situations that could lead a child to throw a tantrum. "C" stands for Consequences and pushes parents to provide positive reinforcement for good behavior. These steps all sound like common sense, but it's sticking to them that's tricky. However, when researchers trained parents how to follow these steps, not only did children exhibit better behavior but some parents (particularly, single mothers) did better in their own lives.

One of the most important parts of the ABCs is reinforcing positive behavior and ignoring bad behavior. Parents are asked to be very specific with their praise. Instead of giving general praise such as, "good job," researchers recommend saying things like, "you did a good job putting your book away when I asked you to." They recommend following up with a touch as well. Parents can also point out good behavior in others when they see it, but should avoid comparing other children to their own.

The techniques need to be tailored for each situation and might seem counter-intuitive sometimes. For example, a child that breaks things while throwing a tantrum could be praised if he/she doesn't break things this time. In a situation like that, parents would be encouraged to play a pretend game called, "let's-pretend -you-have-a-tantrum-but-don't-throw-things," to show the child how to better express himself. Practicing in small steps will eventually lead to less demonstrative behavior. Parents are also encouraged to model good behavior themselves if they expect junior to follow suit. Speaking respectfully to other people is a great way to show a child how to deal with others.

The researchers also suggests setting the tone for a situation to avoid future tantrums. They recommend being firm with the child, but still offering choices. For example, "you must wear a coat, would you like to wear the red one or the green one?" Sometimes a small change in tone works wonders. One set of parents the researchers worked with were encouraged to change the tone of desperation in their voices when they had trouble getting their child to use the potty. He already knew how to use it but still refused to use it when he had to go. Once his parents stopped begging and took on a new attitude by saying, "You don't have to go to the toilet. When you're bigger, you'll get it." The child began using it regularly.

Many parents will find these tidbits to be common sense, but we all can use a reminder that there's a simple, straight-forward approach to teaching a child good behavior.

How do you encourage good behavior?

Tantrum Tamer: New Ways Parents Can Stop Bad Behavior [WSJ]