My son is extremely strong willed. He throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. I’ve read all the books and try to be consistent in discipline. What else can I do?
You’ve rushed into Wal-Mart to pick up a few things and pass the Sponge Bob Bubble Bath. Your little guy reaches out to grab it and you move his hand away and say no. The power struggle has begun. In a matter of seconds your sons’ emotions can roar like a runaway train through frustration and anger into full-blown rage—out of control and running full tilt into a temper tantrum. Suddenly your precious little cherub shouts, screams, holds his breath, jumps up and down, kicks wildly and now everyone it the store (or so it seems) is staring at you.
An occupational hazard of raising sons is that you will experience a season when your child will struggle with temper tantrums. Temper tantrums first appear during a child’s second year, peak between the ages of two and three, and decrease by the age of four—an age when the child is forming a sense of self, when the toddler is old enough to have a sense of “me” but is too young to control getting what he wants when he wants it. It’s common for a temper tantrum to happen when a child is frustrated by a boundary you’ve set around his behavior.
While some tantrums result from organic disturbances or allergies, most are caused by the combination of high energy and low self-control. In many cases the tantrum is evidence of a power struggle—maybe even the result of not setting appropriate boundaries. Tantrums usually last as long as it takes to get what they want or until they realize that their outburst isn’t going to work.
At the outset be aware of where and when the tantrums are most likely to occur. Most children throw tantrums only in a particular place and with a particular person. Be on the lookout for the first signs of a brewing storm. Prepare your mind and your heart. Ask God to help you to respond (James 1:5) and not react to the next outburst. We respond out of strength when we remind ourselves that this is a teachable moment for our little one. We react out of weakness when we choose to set our mind on what others might be thinking of us rather that how God can use this as an opportunity to model healthy emotions and clear boundaries for our little guy.
At the first signs of a tantrum stay aware of your own emotions. Temper tantrums in a child often lead to unhealthy expressions of anger in the parent that fuel the fire rather than extinguish it. Thank the Lord for the God-given emotion of anger and for this opportunity to model a healthy response for your child. He won’t give you more than you can handle (I Corinthians 10:13). He has promised to supply all your needs (Philippians 4:19). That includes the ability to remain semi-calm and grow through this incident.
Know that this is an opportunity for you to model healthy responses to anger. Remember that anger is always a secondary emotion caused by fear and/or hurt and/or frustration. Most of the time temper tantrums are caused by frustration and that what you are experiencing is a developmentally appropriate response to your son receiving the devastating news that he is not the center of the universe. It’s an important lesson that some adults have not yet learned.
Pick him up, hold him firmly and in as gentle and kind a voice that you can muster, look him in the eyes and slowly say, “Honey, I love you. I know that you want the Sponge Bob Bubble Bath and you can’t have it.” Avoid the temptation to react to his anger. Instead you can choose to respond to his frustration and set a clear boundary. No need to enter into a debate, the discussion is over.
Don’t surrender to theatrics. Your response to your son is much more important than what anyone in the grocery store might think of you. “The child should gain no request by anger,” an ancient philosopher said. “When he is quiet let him be offered what was refused when he wept.” That’s still good advice today.