A letter and response about Temper Tantrums with Jane Nelson (author of the Positive Discipline series)
Dear Dr. Jane,
I don't know what has gotten into my three-year-old. She has always had a bit of a temper, even when she was an infant. But she was also a sweet, happy and cheerful little girl. She was very obedient and willing to learn and please. Now she has tantrums for everything. Here are some examples:
-Hitting and kicking me and my husband when she doesn't get her way
-We cannot negotiate with her. She will keep screeching and screeching until she gets her way
-She hates to take baths, get dressed, and eat meals. She whines and cries most of the day.
-Refuses to go to sleep in her own bed when we have never let her sleep in our bed -Spits on purpose because she knows it bothers us
-Says no very forcefully to just about everything, even things that she often enjoys
I feel like all the hard work and love I have put in for the past two years (and 9 months during my pregnancy) have gone down the toilet. I don't know what is wrong with my beautiful and extremely intelligent baby girl. When she was 22 months old she was completely potty trained, knew her ABCs in two languages, and counted to 20 in two languages.
I am very depressed. I live for my daughter and I need to know how to make her a happy and well adjusted girl again. Could she maybe be bipolar or ADD? I am begging for your advice and insight. Do you see a pattern that I don't? Please help me.
Sincerely, Mother of Boo Hoo
Dear Mother of Boo Hoo,
I appreciate how hard you are trying to be a good parent, and I see a pattern. You may be trying too hard to be a perfect mom trying to create a perfect child. You may be doing what many parents are doing today—mega-parenting. When your life revolves around your child, you teach her that the world should revolve around her. You may so busy trying to make her happy and intelligent that she doesn’t have a chance to discover that she can make herself happy.
It seems that for awhile, she was content to allow you to organize her life and got lots of attention for pleasing you. Now she is rebelling. All children will use their personal power one way or another. When parents help children learn to use their personal power in useful ways, they are less likely to use their power in destructive ways. First I will give you some suggestions for dealing with her temper tantrums; then some ideas for helping her learn to use her power in useful ways. There is never just one solution to behavior challenge, so choose or combine any of the following when your daughter has a temper tantrum.
1. Validate her feelings. “I can see you are really angry.” Then just let her have her feelings without thinking you have to fix it.
2. Have faith in her to learn that she can survive being upset when you “mind your own business.” She’ll learn that her emotions will calm down eventually and she will be left with a sense that she is capable and can be resilient.
3. Create a plan in advance with your daughter during a calm time. This plan could be: a) let her know what you will do when she has a tantrum (leave the room—as part of No. 2), or b) let her create her special place for calming down when she is upset, or 3) decide together on a signal you will give her (pulling on your ear or patting your heart) to let her know you love her and will talk with her as soon as she has calmed down.
When you try some of the following suggestions for helping her use her power constructively, many of her tantrums will disappear.
1. Help her create bedtime and morning routine charts. Let her tell you what she needs to do before she goes to bed. If she forgets something, you can say, “What about brushing your teeth?” Take pictures of her doing each task and let her paste the pictures on her routine chart. Then let her tell you what needs to be done next instead of you telling her. Do not add praise or rewards. Allow her to feel good about her accomplishments from the inside instead of depending on outside evaluations.
2. Stop telling and start asking. Instead of, “Don’t forget your coat,” ask, “What do you need to take if you don’t want to be cold outside?” This is just one example. Notice how often you give a command and change it into a question that invites your daughter to think and to feel a sense of her personal power.
3. As soon as she turns four-years-old start having weekly family meetings where you can teach her how to focus on solutions to any problem that might be put on the family meeting agenda during the week.
It is very important for you to have a life of your own so you can quit micro-managing your daughter. Next to loving her (which you obviously do), the best gift you can give your daughter is experiences to help her develop the belief that she is capable because she can solve her own problems, knows how to handle the ups and downs of life, and can make herself happy.
By Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Author and co-author of the Positive Discipline series
Ginny Johnstone is a certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, consultant and Heal Your Life coach specialising in teaching conscious parenting ideas and self-awareness tools to parents and teachers in South Africa.