An Engineer’s Guide to Handling Temper Tantrums

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About Pete Beisner

Pete Beisner is a father, husband and veteran who works in the field of information technology. He has a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and hates writing.

Comments

  1. My kids were insanely easy-to-manage, except in the grocery store. The only way to defuse a tantrum was mimicry. Anticipate and echo every shriek, moan, flail, kick and howl. Not socially preferable, but effective. Sure, some tantrums required investigation, which usually resulted in a lot of hand washing…

    It became a sport for me, once my critters could articulate their desires, to see if I could deactivate other people’s meltdown machines. At a distance, and in a location out of the other parent’s line of sight, I would attempt to get the toddler’s attention. Once acquired, all it took was a funny face, a smile, a quietly whispered “What’s the problem, buddy?”, and the tantrum would subside.
    A little bit of math led me to the conclusion that the number one catalyst for tantrums in the store was lack of attention. Anything that diverts Mom’s or Dad’s attention from ME is a threat and must be overpowered. The begging and cart rattling were vainly thrown grenades. And, once they realized that SOMEONE was paying attention, they forgot that there had ever been a problem.

    I’ve been caught by the parent on a couple occasions; once with a scowl, once with a shrug that said “Thanks, but what about next time?” My answer to that one was a smile and a shrug that said “I’ll be here next week.”

    I wasn’t successful 100% of the time, but that’s what made it a sport.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Did you ever read Happiest Toddler on the Block?

      Because Dr Karp’s idea there was to mimic their emotions, but at a lesser level. I think he said 30%. Because when they are screaming and we talk calmly, they just think “This person is so calm. They obviously don’t get that I’m upset!” and then they get more upset.

      Sort of like when we’re PISSED and some cheesy new-ager comes in and goes, “Now, I know you’re upset, but you don’t have to be” and we go SHUT THE F UP!!!

      It worked amazingly on my kids. To make a really mad face or stomp or make a fist of angry and say, “You must be so. mad. right. now.” and they’d go “Yeah” and start really talking after a minute or two.

      Sounds like that, in a way, is sort of what you were doing, too.

  2. Tom Brechlin says:

    Something that you’re not taking into account is the age of the child who is having the meld down/shake down. There is a big difference between a 1 year old and a three year old or older. You said, “Usually these melt-downs occur when the ability to process stimulus is exceeded by incoming stimulus” I disagree. Most of the meltdowns I’ve encountered were simply a situation where a child wasn’t getting what he/she wanted. As I’ll show in the following, my grandson’s issues were definitely due to his inability to process his new environment.

    Two days ago, my 3 year old grandson had a meltdown at the movies. The only theater he’d been to was one of those where you have tables and eat while watching the movie. This particular theater we went to see Smerfs 2, is a massive old theater palace. Sadly, the theater was empty and the movie was cancelled. The manager nonetheless opened up for us. My wife got the popcorn and my grandson and I went into the theater. Although the theater was showing previews of Cars, the place was really dark and to a 3 year old it was scary. No more then we sat down, he started crying and saying he wanted to go home. Once my wife got to the seats, we moved further back at which point he cried that he wanted to go “ALL the way home.” (Smart kid).

    We could have sat there and try to reason with him and for some, maybe they would have been pissed off at him after the manager opened the theater just for us. But the truth is, he was freaked out. I can understand the different reasons kids have their melt downs but that’s not to say others have to deal with it. No matter the type of melt down, there is no reason why it can’t be dealt with away from others.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Well, that’s really fear. That’s different from “I want Lucky Charms.”

      I always say, “Don’t negotiate with toddlers or terrorists.”

      It’s important to understand fear vs control, too. Also, setting. You can’t scream in a movie theater. It’s just vastly different than a grocery store. In one, you don’t need to hear dialogue and you can move further away. In the other, you’re really stuck.

      We must’ve left 4 movie theaters, probably 6 before the kids weren’t terrified. Now they’re obsessed with the movies. But I never left a grocery store, unless it was to give them a HUGE time-out for bad behavior in the car.

    • Nice writeup. I’d like to see the next step from an engineering mindset -> steps to difusing a tantrum.

      There was one situation missing from this piece and that is the 1,000 fold increase in tantrums with an overly-tired child. There are a myriad of behavioral issues that dissapear when a child gets enough sleep…and the amount they need is usually more than you think. I have a 4 yr old and 2 yr old whose behavior was greatly improved once we started getting them an extra 2 hours of sleep a night and getting the 2 yr old regular naps.

      And just becaue I can’t let it go, I like how in the same post @Tom says “most 3 yr old tantrums are due to wanting to get their way” then immediately launches into a story about his 3 yr old grandson was overwhelmed so they had to leave a theater.

      • Pete Beisner says:

        Jack, I meant to include something about paying attention to what makes a system work so that it does not go into meltdown. Somehow it did not make it into the final version. Good catch. Thanks.

  3. @Tom “there’s no reason it can’t be dealt with away from others.”- Pardon? No reason, what, ever? I can think of a few. How about the kid wants to leave the shop & ‘dealing with it away from others’ equates to ‘teaching the kid that screaming gets you your way’? How about ‘the needs of the parent and child are just as important as yours’? How about ‘you have no idea /what/ their situation might be so just move away and get over it, or buy earplugs’?. How about you stop requiring children, who are be definition less able than you (as an adult) to cope with stressors, emotional content, disappointments, emotional regulation, behaviour regulation and are just basically less good at the ‘behaving like a grown up’, to be the ones who put up and shut up so /you/ don’t have to alter /your/ behaviour or regulate /your/ emotions? It just seems like a lot of ‘How dare those parents and kids expect to have equal rights in this space, the whole world Ought to revolve around Me and My Needs, and They are acting like it revolves around Theirs, How Dare They?!’. Little bit hypocritical to always be demanding others put themsves out for you, so you don’t have to put yourself out for them, especially when what you are refusing to do is tolerate the necessary learning of children.

    • I think it’s pretty ridiculous that you think that people without children feel entitled. It’s quite the opposite. Parents choose to have children, and those choices come with consequences and responsibilities. Those are things that the parents have to deal with, not the people around them. When they refuse to acknowledge those responsibilities and it ends up being at the expense of others, there is a problem there. Don’t try to switch this around and say that people just need to deal with the needs of parents and children. Parents are able to successfully disarm situations like this all the time, so the few parents who just let their kids wail is pretty stupid if you ask me.

  4. Tom Brechlin says:

    Marriwyn ….Kids not wanting to shop? Take them outside and deal with the situation and then go back in the store and finish your shopping. How about the needs of the parents? The need of the parent is to learn how to get your child under control. It’s a parenting moment. “How about ‘you have no idea /what/ their situation might be so just move away and get over it, or buy earplugs’?” whatever the situation, the parent has the ability to move away from others and deal with it. 5, 6,12 patrons of the store are to buy ear plugs because of your childs meltdown? “How about you stop requiring children, who are be definition less able than you (as an adult) to cope with stressors, emotional content, disappointments, emotional regulation,” … That child has an adult parent who should be in charge of the situation and simply needs to take responsibility. It’s not a regulation, it’s a simple expectation.” Little bit hypocritical to always be demanding others put themsves out for you, so you don’t have to put yourself out for them, especially when what you are refusing to do is tolerate the necessary learning of children.” The childs upbringing is the parents responsibility and not one of the other patrons whose purpose was to shop. I don’t demand that others put themselves out for me. I simply expect that a parent be the parent and do what he/she can to take control of the situation so as to not disrupt those around them. The onus is put on the parent to develop parenting skills … it’s that simple.

  5. Hmm, I agree with this to some extent, but I do think there’s a place to take your kid outside until they calm down. Then you regroup and return. It’s not always possible, but it’s also not always impossible, and it is also important to show that behavior in a public place means being respectful of other people. It goes along with showing that there’s no running in a store, no screaming, you stay with your parents–whatever your rules are for being in public. For the record, I have a four year old, and she has definitely had melt downs in grocery stores. And to counter this, sometimes you just need to get the damned bread and get home for dinner, and it is truly stressful to manage getting your shopping done under the glare of angry eyes.

    • Pete Beisner says:

      Of course there is a time and a place for that. But sometimes you really do have to get done what you need to do. And public spaces are just that: public.

      • Joanna Schroeder says:

        IE The DMV or other places where you have to wait in line (grocery store). Can’t just get out of line because your kid wants a Snickers and you said “no”.

        • Pete Beisner says:

          And even if you aren’t already in line, I have one word for you: perishables. You can’t just abandon your cart and allow the fish sticks to defrost. On top of that, a parent can be 90% done with a mega-run that takes two hours, and you do not want a parent to have to walk out on that – trust me. If you have to walk away from a full-cart, the kid wins and you will be nothing but distressed.

          I keep wondering how people who want parents to get their kids “under control” expect us to accomplish this. Terrifying kids into compliance is not a parenting technique. It is a mafia tactic. I am a father not a Godfather.

          And one last thing: Some kids have behavioral or developmental disabilities. If their parents only took them into public when we could “control” them, the parents would be permanently housebound.

  6. I find your statement that “you likely have more time than a parent does,” infuriating. You don’t know what my life is like, just like I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the child’s meltdown. The world doesn’t revolve around me, but it doesn’t revolve around you and your children, either.

    • Pete Beisner says:

      The word likely is meant to demonstrate the fact that I do not know the circumstances of individual lives. But, statistically you are have a lot more time for discretionary activities than parents of young children. The word likely is an indicator of probability, not fact.

      And my children are now young adults. So I am not writing about this as someone who thinks that the world should revolve around my small children and me.

      And as someone who has had young children and now does not, let me say that I had almost no discretionary time when I had small children. Now I like to think of myself as busy, just like I did before young kids. But I had no idea what busy actually was until I had little kids. I also had no idea what true exhaustion and sleep deprivation was like.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Actually, raising a spoiled brat who thinks he can get what he wants by screaming will negatively affect you in the future.

      “Where are there parents? Who raised these kids?” you probably ask of teens who are littering, drag racing, road-surfing, spray painting, hurting others, starting fires, etc? They were giving into their kids so that you could have your quiet in the grocery store.

      Certainly not a 100% correlation, but we do know that kids need to be taught impulse control, not being manipulative, thinking about others, and not being selfish and demanding. That happens when parents are firm, consistent, and don’t give in to tantrums.

      As a non-parent, you may not know this phrase but it’s HUGELY important to remember: “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

      Tantrum in the grocery store? LIttle problem. Being arrested for stealing/driving drunk/other crimes? Big problem.

      Nip it in the bud.

  7. Tom Brechlin says:

    Funny thing is that I have never seen these types of situations at Home Depot.

    That being said, of course there are situations where you’re locked into finishing your shopping. Standing in line with a loaded cart, you’re not expected to pull out of line and walk away but that’s not what we’re talking about. Ya’ll know you’ve witnessed situations where these parents could have easily removed themselves from the situation and away from ear shot of others in the store. And that’s what I and others have been referring to.

    I am always amazed that when situations are brought to our attention, people quickly move to the exceptions rather then the norm. It’s as though people want justify and make excuses.

  8. Julia Newman says:

    You know, as a single woman, I am not sure how to react to this article. Our culture is so saturated w loud, glaring stimuli on commercials and awards shoes, reality TV and billboards. There is so much noise, I wish there was an article asking corporations to simmer down and stop polluting our relationships. As individuals we should learn basic socially acceptable norms or st least awareness. But children are annoyingly hard to control and unpredictable. That is the burden of parenthood. And a burden on all adults, a burden we should shoulder. Not that we have to raise each others kids but we need to give each child our best effort to create a world that is safe and productive for them. I agree that the article wouldn’t bother me as much as it does if it offered supportive advice for qualming disruptive children. We don’t all need psychology degrees, but we’d benefit from simply giving each other the benefit of the doubt that we’re doing our best. Everything changes. Angered by a loud kid? If you’re not over it in an hour, then I envy you and your not-such-dire problemed life.

  9. Shame on everyone who has such an intolerance for the needs of others on both sides of the fence. Half the problem here is a lack of tolerance on both sides. Someone already said it…it’s a PUBLIC space. Good luck dictating the behavior of others.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      A department store, a super market is not “public space.” That’s why people are called “patrons.” It’s a space where the public may be but it’s not a sidewalk or a park. I will have tolerance in the supermarket line where the child is melting down and parent is trying her best to get through. And even in public areas there are laws “disturbing the peace” where the public is limited as to what they can and cannot do or say.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      @ Cassandra Speaking of public space …. In Illinois, the current law says music shouldn’t be intrusive beyond 100 feet, but, starting July 1, motorists can be ticketed if you can hear their stereo further than 25 feet away from the car.
      Beginning July 1 a new law says that motorists whose car stereos can be heard further than 25 feet can be ticketed. The fine: $68.50.

      • Pete Beisner says:

        Actually both the law and your attitude about children are starting to convince me that I am ow a certain unmentionable former male feminist an apology. And that would just be ghastly.

        He said that white men expect public spaces to be suited to them, not to be bothered by music (and we all know what race that law was aimed at) or to be bothered by crying babies.

        I am becoming convinced that as a group we are the bankers in Mary Poppins. It is time to go fly a kite. .

        • Tom Brechlin says:

          I don’t think so, it’s in general simple respect for others around you and being conscious of those around us. Of course there will always be exceptions but there is an overall attitude that anyone has the right to do anything any time.

          Actually the music law was prompted by the dangers of the driver not being able to hear emergency sirens.

          Back in 1995 I had a car that had the greatest sound system for its time. I had a Gino Vinelli cassette and I remember blasting it. There was a portion of the tape that there was a siren and wouldn’t ya know it …. I pulled over. My wife looked at me like I was nuts.

          Nonetheless, I can attest that because of where I live, a residential stretch of a busy street, like clockwork there are cars that drive by with the “thumping” that I can hear in my house with all the windows closed. I’m in my freaking house … who is invading whose space? When I’m at a stop light and my rear view mirror is vibrating because of the base coming from another car … whose space is being violated?

          Earlier there was something mentioned about stimulus and children in stores, in essences a trigger. Okay, here is one for you. Many years ago I suffered from what was called back then, suicidal migraines. Low vibration sounds send chills up my neck in that they trigger something in me that’s related to the migraines I would get. That’s why with all my sound systems the base is usually minimized. Again, it goes back to simply respect of others.

          • Pete Beisner says:

            But “simple respect for those around you” includes respect for small children and those with emotional/developmental disabilities. And that respect means going about your business while their parents take care of the noisy bits,

            • Tom Brechlin says:

              I don’t think anyone has an issue with children emotional/developmental disabilities. We’re talking about the countless kids that don’t have them and the parent(s) still subject others to the bratty behaviors.

            • Princess Mom says:

              The problem is determining which children have emotional/developmental problems and which are “just brats.” When they’re lying on the grocery store floor screaming, they look awfully alike to me. So how am I to know if I should be righteously indignant or sympathetic?

              The bottom line is that anyone lying on the floor screaming is having an emotional reaction related to a lack of development.

  10. Something to keep in mind is that not all children are capable of the same level of self-control, often due to medical issues. My cousin’s daughter was born seventeen weeks premature, and spent sixteen months in the hospital. She is now seven and looks like a typical five-year-old, but has the social and mental capacity of a toddler. She has some hearing loss, and often isn’t able to follow basic instructions. From twenty feet away, she looks like a healthy, misbehaving kindergartener, and her parents look inept.

    In short, we all need to remember that there may be factors we don’t know about, so choosing to be tolerant and show some compassion is always the safest bet.

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      I don’t think anyone is saying that there aren’t exceptions. Are we talking about the exceptions or the situations where parents do have the ability to contain the situation? We all know we’ve witnessed situations where the kid is simply being a brat and those are the situations we’re talking about.

      My kids threw tantrums and my grandkids throw tantrums and I know what they are and why they’re throwing them. It’s for darn sure I didn’t and won’t subject others to their poor behaviors. When my kids were young, if they woke up with attitude or at some point showed signs of having an attitude, I guess it wouldn’t be a good time to drag them shopping, would it?

      How about the times I’ve seen the moms taking the kids out of the car while they were screaming and dragged them into the store screaming? Those are the situations that I’m referring to.

      • The problem is, if the child is screaming because he doesn’t want to go into the store, giving in to him will only make the situation worse next time. I have two daughters, and I recall a few volatile blow-ups in public when the oldest was small (the younger is still a toddler). Her father and I chose to be firm, and suffer the humiliation of having people stare, rather than taking the easy way out and doing whatever was necessary to shut her up right that second. By the time she was three or so, she knew that begging for toys or candy or having a temper tantrum because she was bored and wanted to leave wouldn’t get her anywhere, so she didn’t do it anymore.

        I’m talking here about environments like the grocery store or family restaurants…I would handle things differently in situations where adults can reasonably expect not to have to deal with noisy children, like nicer restaurants. In these situations, I’d leave the kid at home or be prepared to head for the parking lot if things went south.

  11. My problem with screaming children in general is that MOST parents are either (a) oblivious to the child’s tantrum, (b) yelling just as much as the child, or (c) obviously giving in to the shake-down and encouraging the poor behavior. Any and all public tantrums are not equal, and the poor parents among us are ruining it for the rest of us.

    Yes, kids will be kids, but that’s no excuse to at least TRY to teach your child manners. My six year old nephews were running all over a hotel this weekend making all kinds of noise at 7am on Saturday, and when people complained, my brother-in-law said, “well, what do you expect? they’re kids?” Well, I expect you to teach them that it’s rude to be noisy when other people are sleeping. THAT is the kind of attitude that makes non-parents crazy. Of course things are going to get out of hand from time to time. The question is, what are the parents doing about it?

    • Tom Brechlin says:

      Reminds me of last year when my second grandson was baptized. They’d rented a room at a local club and the room was partitioned with folding doors to other rooms. My older grandson kept going into the other room with his slightly older cousins. The other grandparents attempted to get them to stop. I finally had it and went to the small opening in the door, looked in and yelled “Noah Thomas, get over here right now.” He did, I sat him in his time out chair (which I established when we got to the hall) and there he sat, quiet as a mouse until I went over to him. He apologized and we had zero problem with him the rest of the afternoon. My son-in-laws mother came over to me and asked how I did that. I explained that Noah and I have a clear understanding.

      Boundaries is all it takes. They understand them and they will push them when they can with those whom they know they can push. Upa (me) is not one of them.

  12. Nice! LMAO! While there is lots of advice here what are you supposed to do to help the child/handle the tantrum? To hell with the rude and condescending adults, they must of had model kids!

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  13. If toddlers come into my space and scream off their little mouths in public verbally assaulting my environment then I have every right to light a smoke next to them and pollute theirs. I have no tolerance for a 2 or 6 or 9 or a 35 year old temper tantrums for whatever reason and if they think that such behaviours are unacceptable by the majority of public, you have another thing coming.

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