Phases, Bad Habits, and Tantrums
The page on Control has a listing of some common Age-Related phases, and this page has more strategies for dealing with them.
We'll tackle the subjects one at a time:
A phase is just a time when a certain behavior becomes more pronounced, because a child is learning developmental concepts which have changed the way they see the world. They now need to learn how the new concept fits in and works with what they already knew. Often, they do this by testing.
When a child begins testing their parents, environment, or themselves, it is not a conscious thing. They don't say consciously, “Oh, I wonder what will happen if I do THIS!” They just feel curious, or feel the desire to do something, without understanding why, and they do it. It is not done out of malice, or from a desire to BE disobedient. The disobedience is of secondary consideration.
Often, they will not even understand fully that what they did was wrong. Whether you provide a consequence in that instance has to be a judgment call – some kids, if you tell them it was wrong, and you DON'T provide a consequence, will do it again because they reason that it must not have been that important. Other children, once they find out you do not want them to do it, will make every effort to remember to not repeat the mistake. So whether or not you provide a consequence on the first offense when they genuinely did not know is very much an individual choice.
In the midst of a phase, they may begin doing something they knew full well was wrong. Or which they had enough prior knowledge to be able to rationalize ahead of time and know that it was not a good choice. There can be no question then of whether you provide a consequence, you must, or it WILL reoccur more than it would otherwise.
Sometimes they do things because they feel a certain way, and don't know quite how to express that. Sometimes it is because they have a new awareness of something, and want to test it out, and sometimes it is because a change has occurred in their life, and they are struggling to make sense of that. The REASON why they did it must be addressed, if there is one you can pinpoint. But you must also provide a consequence, so the child learns that they are responsible for controlling their own actions, even when it isn't easy. This does not constitute punishing them for having trouble handling things, rather, it is part of the process of teaching them more appropriate ways to handle difficulties, and should be accompanied by teaching them more effective coping strategies.
Our kids went through something we called “pre-Baptismal syndrome”. In our church, kids are baptized at the age of 8, and it seemed that sometime between 7 and 8 years of age, they went through a phase where they would test concepts of right and wrong. In one child, it came out as stealing. Another, it was lying. A third had temper problems. A fourth was defiant. Each had a particular struggle during that time, and it was pronounced enough with the first one, that we recognized it as a phase that we needed to address.
We believe in God and Satan, so our explanation to our son included those beliefs. We took him aside, and told him, “Right now, Satan is tempting you to do things that are wrong. You know they are wrong. It might be harder to obey now than it was last year, but it is still your responsibility to obey and do what you know is right. Most kids your age have to learn this too.” He learned that what was happening was normal, and that it was hard just like he felt, but that he had the responsibility to cope with it. We also told him, “Satan really wants you to get into trouble. But if you do what he says, he doesn't get the punishment for it, you do!” That had a big affect on him, because he could then see that when he had a thought in his head about doing something wrong, he could tell himself that it was just Satan trying to get him in trouble, and that he didn't want to be in trouble, so he'd not do it.
We have had six other kids go through that very same phase. It looked a bit different in each, but had the same characteristics of a deep struggle with right and wrong. Each time, we took them aside and explained that something was happening that made it hard, and what they could do about it. Invariably, the phase came under control after we did that. We also had to address the behavior itself when it happened, and we did, but I think that addressing the cause was a necessary part of it, and we could pinpoint the improvement right to the time when we took them aside and gave them an understanding of what was happening. It helped them to know that they were not “bad”, and that they could learn how to be better.
In a younger child, talking to them is not the answer. We have had younger children go through phases when a sibling was born and they felt a little more distant from Mom for a while, or when Dad started working nights and his time was more limited, or when other changes occurred that upset their sense of security. When that happened, we had to address the cause through actions, not through words. I would make an effort to hug them more often, or to include them in the care of the sibling, or Dad would make sure they got a bit of time with him. We would simultaneously work on the inappropriate behavior by providing a consequence, and addressing the underlying insecurity.
One of the most aggravating phases for me is the “Just a minute” phase. Because once it starts, it never seems to end! You have to be on the ball all the time to curb it. And if you have five kids all doing it, your entire life can grind to a halt if you don't find an effective way to deal with it. We have tried several things, all of which worked when consistently applied.
1. Extra work. If I tell you to do something and you put it off and don't do it, you get an extra job of the same size as the one I first assigned – you wasted my time having to tell you twice, so you'll have to do something to make it up.
2. Squirt gun. If I ask you to do something and you don't move within about 10 seconds (assuming there is not a good reason), I use the squirt gun. This has to be done with a sense of humor or it won't work though – before the squirt gun broke, Kevin would skulk around corners like a commando in search of kids who were procrastinating during chore time. For many kids, this is a fair consequence. If your children feel it is demeaning (some will), then it is not appropriate.
3. Taking away whatever it is that is distracting them. Often a book, game, movie, whatever. If they cannot pull themselves out of it to deal with reality, then I'll take it away for 24 hours.
I think the problem with this phase is not the kids! I mean, they are going to do this when they get to be about 10-12 years old, and they will keep doing it if they can until they leave home! The real problem is that in order to keep it under control, the parents have to pay attention and follow through.
If I have a consequence for unfinished chores, I have to check the chores every time. That means I cannot slack! If I want them to respond promptly when asked to do something, I cannot just ask them and leave the room and go back to what I was absorbed in, no matter how important. I have to make sure they moved when they said they would. So I have to train ME along with training them.
Over time, ideally, they should learn that the need to respond promptly and that they need to be reliable. Most kids will, but while they get more reliable in one task, they may still need oversight in another, particularly if it is one they do not like.
Bad habits often spring from a phase, or complicate one. Some of the strategies are the same, as bad habits sometimes have an underlying cause, sometimes not.
The basic two pronged approach is the same as for Phases. You separate the cause, if there is one, from the behavior, and treat them separately.
Behavioralists who want to quantify everything and provide a nice neat solution to every human problem will tell you that bad habits spring from an unmet need. Well, sometimes they do, but often, they just develop from a developmental stage, or evolve from something a child just learned how to do that feels good to do for some unknown reason.
The same experts will also tell you that if you address the underlying need, the habit will disappear as well. This is, unfortunately, not true. A habit may start for one reason, and then continue as other motivations replace the original one. It is fairly certain that without a two-pronged approach – both addressing any underlying cause, AND providing a consequence for the behavior – any attempts to curb it will fail.
Often, a habit just forms before Mom and Dad realize it has. One of our sons developed a habit of jumping on anyone's back if they crouched down for any reason. When he was 2, it was funny. When he was 7, it was dangerous because he was fairly impetuous. His actions annoyed, and even hurt, his siblings, and it had to be stopped. At the age of 7, he was old enough to reason with. We asked him to stop, and he did not. It was a habit, so he did it without thinking. This meant he had to retrain himself not to do it, and that requires strong motivation, and repetition.
I took him aside, and explained why the behavior needed to stop. I told him I loved him and wanted him to remember to not do it, so every time he did it, I was going to send him to his room to sit on his bed for 5 minutes. He agreed to try.
Within a few hours he had done it again. I sent him to his room. The next day, it happened again. I sent him to his room. It never happened again. This is rare, it almost always takes more than 3 repetitions to train a kid out of a bad habit.
It is hard for some parents to understand that in order for a child to overcome a habit, the parent has to not only expect it to happen, but to assure that it will. The parent is the one that must take responsibility for monitoring the progress, applying the consequence consistently, and letting the child know you are pleased when it goes away. If you just tell the child to fix it and don't follow through, it won't go away.
Our oldest daughter is the only one who was not trained to a pacifier. She sucked her middle two fingers. By the time she was 5, they had huge welts on them, that would bleed where her teeth dug in. We tried many things to stop it, but it did not work (prior to the bleeding fingers we didn't worry too much about it because it was not causing harm). Finally, at the age of 6, she decided she wanted to stop. She had stopped sucking her fingers during the daytime, and only did at night. So every evening, she had me wrap the middle section of each of the two fingers with a strip of surgical tape. She took it off in the morning. We did that for a month, and she never went back to it. She made the choice, and I gave her the tool and cooperation so she could do it.
I did say that a consequence must be applied consistently, and that it takes at least 3 repetitions to have an effect almost all the time. With a habit, it can take much more. It can take a month of consistent application to make a change. Because a habit occurs without thinking about it, it is a subconscious behavior. Retraining the subconscious takes longer. So be very patient, and keep applying your chosen solution. If it gives the child an unpleasant consequence (remember it can be very small), and if it addresses any underlying contributing issues as a separate tactic, then it will eventually work.
Behavior modification specialists recommend a rubberband on the wrist for self-improvement – a quick snap to one's own wrist when the negative behavior occurs. You can suggest that a child use that themselves if they are old enough, but they must choose to for it to be effective.
Training a child out of a habit is another area that can lead to a control battle if you are not careful. So it is important that the child understand that you are doing it from love, and not out of a desire to “fix” them or control them. If they understand why, they are more likely to want to do it. And you'd not want to get rid of a habit, but compromise your relationship with the child in the process.
Tantrums are about control. Yes, they may also have an underlying reason, such as an inability to express emotions in a more appropriate way, but they either are, or will shortly become, a manipulation tactic. You must understand the seriousness of that, in order to appropriately address them. Manipulating others to get what you want is nothing short of emotional blackmail, and it is not something you want to encourage in a child. It will sabotage their relationships with all they come in contact with if you inadvertently encourage it.
Having said that, this does not mean you do not deal with them compassionately. They have the same rule as the other two issues in this section – address any underlying contributing factors, and provide a consequence for the tantrum.
You have two options for providing a consequence, and which you choose depends on the child.
You can ignore it. That means, you leave the room, and do not be near the child as long as the tantrum is happening. If you cannot get away, you tune out. Completely. No matter what. If you give in at any point, you are teaching the child that if they get drastic enough, eventually you'll capitulate so you must absolutely not give in.
If you use this approach, it WILL get worse! The child will decide that if you won't pay attention, they'll do something worse. And they will do that until they give up, which means things could get pretty ugly if they are determined. And once you start this course, you have to stick it out, or be prepared with a second option to switch to when your limit is reached, and then never try ignoring it again.
With a certain number of kids, this is simply not an acceptable option, because they will either injure themselves, or cause damage to property or other people. In that case, you CANNOT ignore it. You must choose another option. Anyone who insists that ignoring it is appropriate simply has never been around a strong willed child who is experienced at throwing major tantrums!
In general, younger children will respond to being ignored, because you can put them in a crib or playpen and walk out of the room until they settle down. With an older child who does not have the ability to restrain themselves, you cannot lock them in a room, and you cannot physically tie them up. Some will respond to being held firmly on a lap, but only very few, and then some will still feel they are controlling you. So ignoring may present a potentially dangerous situation which you do not want to get into.
Your second choice is to act and provide a consequence. First, understand, that if ignoring it is not possible, then tantrums are a Red Zone behavior! Potentially dangerous, and not something that can wait. You must act fast, and the child must see that you will not tolerate it for a minute.
You'll have to set a limit. What constitutes a tantrum? Where do you draw the line? For one of our children, we drew the line very strict, because if she started in, she would not stop until a consequence was applied. We had to react at the earliest signs. For another, when it looked like he was about to throw a tantrum, he was finishing up, so we did not have to be so strict. Once you have drawn it, you must be consistent about not making exceptions ever.
You need a strategy for when you are home, and another for when you are in public, because the child WILL test you in public also.
At home, we used the cold shower. Our daughter got into a cycle of tantrums. I researched carefully to see whether her behaviors were related to diet or anything else. Finally I determined that she was being manipulative, and addressed it accordingly. My husband and I discussed our plan. I would make sure that she got plenty of hugs when things were good. If she threw a tantrum, the minute it was clear that she was “winding up”, I'd take her and put her in the shower.
She came home from school that day, and within minutes was in a control battle. I said no, and she went to the floor. I took her by the hand and said, “Ok...”, and lead her down the hall. Oddly, she did not resist, but I did hear her quietly say, “Uh-oh.”. I put her in the shower, shoes, clothes and all. I turned on the cold and a shriek rose from the shower. I waited until she could hear me, and told her calmly that she could apologize and I'd turn off the water. She did, and I did. It took all of 10 seconds. I explained that if she threw another tantrum, she'd get another cold shower. I told her I loved her and wanted to teach her to be happy. She changed her clothes and bounced out to play after she did her work (which the fight had been about in the first place).
Three days later, she tried it again. We repeated the process. One month later, it happened again, the tantrum, the shower. After that, she'd have a tantrum at the beginning of any difficult emotional phase. And that is all. Previously she had been having at least one, sometimes three tantrums a day.
I never knew what she got out of that. Because I never gave her what she asked for when she threw a tantrum. I think perhaps she felt that if I would not give in, she'd at least make me pay for it, I don't know! But once we found a consistent, immediate, mildly unpleasant consequence (it was the middle of summer), it came under control. It never completely went away. But we could live with what it became and that was acceptable.
In public, the solution was to leave if things got out of control. No matter what, we leave. Usually though, I plan the day so there are built in rewards. We pack a snack for in the car on the way to the store (it takes an hour to get there). If they misbehave, they have to wait longer to get it. And usually when we are in the store I'll buy a treat along with the groceries. If you misbehave in the store, you don't get it. If you behave when we are out all day, you get a kid's meal... if you don't, then you just get a hamburger and fries. I make sure there are built in rewards through the day so they know they have to earn them by good behavior.
With tantrums, and other control battles, there is a rule:
It is not about winning or losing, but refusing to play the game.
One day my son was talking about getting in an argument and feeling very frustrated. This boy is very quick. If you ask him a trick question, he will key in on it and think in a different direction. So I asked him, “How do you win at Tug of War?”
He said, “Pull harder than the other guy.”
I asked him, “What's the other way?”
He puzzled for a moment and said, “Let go of the rope.”
See, sometimes we get into behavior patterns with people, and we get so keyed in on winning the war, that we make the war worse instead of looking for a way to win just the important part. You don't need to obliterate your opposition. You just need to gain the important point. Whether that is cooperation, less rebellion, or whatever. And to do that, you have to stop playing the game that you cannot win.
The thing about conflict patterns is that each person has their role to play. Kid does this, mom does this. Kid does this in response to mom, mom responds with that.
You may feel you are not playing by their rules, that you are changing how you respond, but the child may be interpreting what you are doing as just a variation on a theme. You have to think way out of the box, and find a way to break the pattern entirely, not just change your response to the pattern. Find a way to let go of the rope, and make it unrewarding for them to start the game.
Above all, don't allow the other person to manipulate your emotions. Keep calm and rational, and do what you do out of love. Be firm and consistent, and don't budge from your position of calm. You don't need to prove your authority to your child. You ARE the authority. You control the purse, you control the car keys, and you control the rules in the home. Your job is to maintain a position of leadership, and unless you have a child who has become abusive, you have the ability to do that, and to refuse to play by rules that a child is trying to establish to control you. If a child does become abusive, then you need to get outside help, and keep persisting until you get it.
And you don't need to explain your position again. If you have a reoccurring argument with a child, they know your position. You have stated it in every possible way already. Now you just enforce that position, or act on it, and any further argument is pointless. They really are not trying to understand or win anymore, they are arguing because they can control you that way. If they continue to protest that they don't understand, then you can say, “How sad.” and let go of the rope.
For all three of the areas discussed in this page, the basic rules are the same:
Address any underlying cause, but don't expect to always find one.
Provide a consistent, loving, and effective consequence every single time.
With tantrums, the consequence must be quick and immediate.
These issues will happen in almost every home, with virtually every child. They are normal, but it does not mean they are acceptable as long term patterns. You, as the parent, have the responsibility to address the issues in a way that is appropriate for your child.