Why does behavior escalate? How does an everyday moment result in the biggest toddler tantrum of all time? What I’m really asking is: what is the toddler tantrum cure? More specifically, how did I end up with my usually pretty decent three-year-old writhing in a puddle of tears and sweat with matted hair at the bottom of the slide at the Chik Fil A?
All I said was, “Put on your shoes, sweetie.”
I got one of those quick darts-up-the-slide-one-more-time maneuvers and then I chirped again that it was time to go. A whine met my ears, but momma don’t give into whiners, so I said “Shoes, please.” And then, full melt-down.
What was this…a toddler hazing ritual? I had done everything ‘right’, down to the five-minute warning and a little song about the fun of getting into the car. I had been freaking Mary Poppins in this scenario, and yet there I was, with a wailing gremlin on my hands, rubbing his tears up and down his face to literally paint the glass with the by-product of his pain.
Let me just tell you how it ended. Poorly. And with great embarrassment and a lot more sweat.
But wait…there’s hope. There’s a toddler tantrum cure.
I had no idea why I had been the victim of a toddler tantrum until I really thought about it.
Flash backward to a previous Chik Fil A moment the week before, hanging out with friends. When it was time to go, we did the shoe dance and he balked a little and let out a small whimper, and dropped to the ground. I probably cajoled him one more time and he probably pouted. Whatever. And then, the conversation had turned to talking about something way more fun than fighting with a toddler, and the temptation to stay and socialize prevailed. I looked at his mounting frustration and I gave in. It seemed like a win-win; I got to talk with my friend more, he got to play longer, and nobody had to be embarrassed or cry.
Rookie mistake. And I’ve had four kids so there is no excuse.
In behavioral terms, this is called an extinction burst. In the world of a toddler, it’s just a big fat fun game of chicken to see who might flinch first.
You keep using that word: An extinction burst is a temporary increase in behavior to get the reward that you are used to getting.
In this case, my son had learned that if he pouted and fussed a little bit, he would get extra time on the playground. When that didn’t work, he upped the ante and a full-blown toddler tantrum occurred when the behavior didn’t get him what he wanted.
Let’s use a different example: say you go to the vending machine in the office breakroom every day to get a bag of M&Ms to get through the mid-afternoon slump. Every day, you put in your dollar and you push the button, and you get M&Ms. One day, you put in your dollar and push the button and nothing happens. That bag of M&Ms is staring at you, and you did your part and put in a dollar, but you did not get your reward. Are you going to walk away and shrug? Nope, you will probably push the button again and then again even more vigorously when nothing happens. Still no M&Ms? You might even punch the machine or shake it to get to the reward you are used to getting. That’s not normal behavior for you, but you are used to getting M&Ms and you like that result, so you increase the intensity of your behavior to see if it will help you get the reward.
Children behave just like that. If they are hoping to gain a reward, and they have learned, even one time that increasing their behavior will result in getting that reward, they will go back to the thing that worked again and again. If it happens that the thing that worked was bad behavior, you are going to see bad behavior over and over again, but you are especially going to see bad behavior when you don’t deliver the reward.
Sometimes momentary lapses in judgement, like me half-purposefully giving in at Chick Fil A, turn into major problems the next time your child wants the same reward, especially if they remember that acting a little bit bad gets them the good stuff. Bad behavior is almost certain to occur and get even worse, when, this time, they don’t get the desired result.
So, how do you stop tantrums? What, exactly, is the toddler tantrum cure? Well, you can be perfect and never give in to bad behavior, but if being the perfect parent wasn’t on your list of things to do today, sometimes you might have to reset. If you recognize that you’ve given in to bad behavior when you shouldn’t have, you are going to have to deal with even worse behavior for a minute to reset the expectation.
Let’s go back to the vending machine. If you’ve put in your money and pounded on the machine and shook it with vigor and candy still doesn’t come out, you will probably give up for that day, but very likely, the next day you will come back and put money in the machine again. Of course, you will. M&Ms are delicious and the vending machine has been such a faithful provider. So, on day two of no M&Ms, you might punch and pound and kick the machine, but you’ll eventually walk away again. Day three, you might try again, but by this time you will have learned that the machine is no longer your friend and it does not give you what you clearly deserve. You will stop putting money in the machine. The reward is no longer available no matter how the bad the behavior gets. That’s when the bad behavior stops.
Toddler tantrum cure:
Bad behavior reset occurs when the bad behavior does not result in reward. This might take some time and it will definitely take some patience, and might take some humility, but it can be undone.
Consistently refuse to respond to bad behavior, refuse to provide a reward when bad behavior occurs, and believe that the reset is just around the corner.