Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What to Do If Tantrum Disrupts Dinner

My wife and I are presently reading and working through your workbook entitled "Anger Overload in children".
We have a 7 year old boy who will have a tantrum, let's say at the dining room table or while someone is playing piano as examples.  We will ask him to leave the room and go to his bedroom until he has calmed down.  Our challenge is what to do when he will not comply with the request, as his tantrum then severely disrupts the rest of the family's experience with whatever they are involved (we do not live in a very large house).  You suggest in your book that we should ignore the tantrum, however in order to get him to his room, we must continue to give him attention.
Do you have a suggestion for this issue?
Thanks so much in advance!

Hi, you ask a very good question that I get in my clinical practice as well.  There are several possibilities.  One is to have a "back up" consequence that applies if he does not go up to his room when he is told.  You would talk about the back up consequence at some other time when he is calm.  You want the back up consequence to be something short term that he will miss, such as a favorite toy or game.   It has to be something he really cares about.  Then the next he next erupts, you would ignore him, and later when everyone is calm put the back up consequence into effect.  The downside of this approach is that he may escalate again when you impose the consequence, and also you still have to put up with the noise when he does not go to his room.  Furthermore, if he is in a huge tantrum, he will not care about the back up consequence, as he is not thinking rationally then. Your goal with the back up consequence is to have him consider it in his mind when he is only a little angry, that is when he is still rational.  Then if the back up consequence is something he cares about, he will eventually cooperate more often.  So you would need to ask him to go to his room before he gets too emotional, and this is not always possible! 

Another possibility is to set up his room as a relaxing place to go play when he is not angry.  Then you would cue him before someone starts at the piano, before he gets mad.  The downside here is that you cannot always predict which situations will cause a tantrum. 
A third possibility is just to ignore the tantrum and try to talk or play the piano as best you can.  Over time, his screaming will subside if it was being "fed" by your attention.  Remember that nothing you say at that point will help.  The problem with this approach is that if your child is so angry that he is not thinking rationally, it may take him a while to soothe himself even if he is not getting your attention.

Finally, see if you can identify a theme for what is causing some of his tantrums.  Is he jealous that others are getting attention at dinner or at the piano?  Then you may be able to head off a tantrum by a reassuring comment or a distracting activity (like a hand held game or drawing materials).  Let's say the theme is that his sibling is getting your attention at dinner.  Then before you start talking with his sibling, you could say to your 7 year old something like "now it is your brother's turn to talk, but I will give you a turn in a few minutes."  Then compliment him while he is waiting and remind him it will soon be his turn.  Try not to wait too long the first few times you try this. The question therefore to ask yourself is why does he have tantrums at the dining table or while the piano is being played, and see if you can come up with a reassuring statement or a distracting activity for him that will head off a tantrum.  It is harder to deal with of course once the tantrum occurs.  

Best, Dr. Dave Gottlieb 

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