You’re at the food store and your child is shaking in the cart and screaming at the top of her lungs. She is too far gone for you to do anything to calm her down enough to finish your grocery shopping. Everyone is staring, you are hot and sweaty, and you just want to disappear. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. While all kids gets angry at times, some children seem to take their frustration to the outer limits.
“Some kids are temperamentally difficult and don’t cope that well,” says Richard Selznick, PhD, Director of the Cooper Learning Center and author of The Shut-Down Learner. “They tend to be more on the rigid side and are pretty inflexible. These kids don’t handle curve balls really well, so if you throw something at them that you haven’t given them reasonable time to sort out, you can expect them to react in a tantrum and have anger issues.”
How parents should deal with their child depends a great deal on the age and stage of the child. It is very difficult to reason with a three year old because she simply doesn’t understand. In that case, you need to be really attentive to her cues. “You have to be much more mindful of her tendencies,” Dr. Selznick explains. “Toddlers can be almost primitive in their reactions.”
With an eight year old, however, parents can talk sensibly to the child. The trick is finding the right time to have that conversation. In the middle of the meltdown, or even shortly after, the child will still be too upset to have a reasonable conversation. Instead, wait until bedtime when you are both calm and you are tucking her in. Talk about why she was so angry.
“At that point the window is open more than any other time,” Dr. Selznick points out. “Find out from your child what she was upset about and offer your perspective. The possibility of learning can take place in that situation.”
Of course, it’s better if you can prevent the tantrum in the first place. Dr. Selznick encourages parents to continually monitor their child. As soon as she shows signs of getting frustrated, try to redirect her. That might mean having a conversation about what is upsetting her or taking a quick walk to calm her down. He does not believe in indulging the child by giving her candy or buying her something, as that simply reinforces the bad behavior. In the worst case, the child will have her tantrum, and eventually it will be over.
Most importantly, do not yell at your child. When you do, she’s screaming, you’re screaming, and the situation becomes out of control. “Parents utilize yelling as their number one tool,” explains Dr. Selznick. “I know it’s very hard, but I try to get parents to see it as bad weather. You might not like it, but it will pass. Yelling at it is only going to add fuel to the fire.”
Dr. Selznick reminds parents that you are not alone. In his experience it’s the rare family who doesn’t have at least one inflexible child.
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