You know those irritating things that your kids do that absolutely drive you crazy? Things like whining, telling you “no”, begging, not picking up when you tell them to, throwing tantrums or fits when they don’t get their way? As a parent, you may find yourself asking “Why do they keep doing this?!?” with total exasperation in your voice. I have the answer for you. Sadly, you’re probably not going to like it, but here it is.
Kids do these things because they work! Or because they’ve worked in the past. For one reason or another, their irritating behavior has gotten them exactly what they want. Let’s face it. As humans, when we try things a few times and they don’t work, we usually stop doing them. If you tend to speed down a certain street to get to work quickly and you don’t get caught, chances are, you’re going to keep doing it. However, if you get a speeding ticket, you’re more likely to slow down. If you get multiple tickets on that stretch of road or there is a police officer sitting on that stretch regularly, you’ll probably stop altogether. You’ll either leave earlier and go the speed limit or, if you’re a rebel, you’ll find a different path. Either way, when it regularly doesn’t work for you, you’ll try something else. Our kids are no different than us.
When your kids throw tantrums, it’s like that adult speeding down the road. If it works, they’re going to keep doing it. Even if it only works sometimes, they might be the rebel that keeps trying it until it consistently doesn’t work. I know that sometimes you’re tired and you don’t want to deal, but you have to. If you ever want that behavior to stop, you HAVE to deal with it. You have to be the police officer, sitting in their car, monitoring and controlling the behavior, making sure it doesn’t get them what they want. If you let your kids get their intended result (new toy, later bedtime, more screen time, candy, etc.), you are basically a police officer, watching the stretch of road, letting that speeding car get by with it. And what message does that send to your kids? That it is okay to throw a fit and sometimes it works, so they should just keep doing it. You can replace the words “tantrum” and “fit” with “whining”, “begging”, or whatever else you’re dealing with at your house. It’s all the same. They do it because it works or it has worked in the past.
So how do you fix it? You make sure it DOESN’T work. And you will probably have to do this more than once, especially if you’ve had weak moments in the past where they’ve found success with their behavior. In a calm time, where they’re not ____________ (let’s just say tantruming, for ease of discussion), you need to lay down the rules. This is how you do it:
- First you need to describe the behavior and be transparent about what is behind that behavior. I suggest saying something like this: I’ve noticed when you want something really bad, you throw a fit. You yell, scream, tell me “no”, cross your arms and turn away from me. It looks like this (model so there is NO question about what you’re referring to). I understand that when you do this, you’re trying to get me to change my mind, but I want you to know that it will no longer work. When you throw a fit, I will make sure you do NOT get what you want, no matter how big of a fit you throw.
- Next, you need to model what will happen when this behavior happens (and it WILL, so make sure you’re willing to follow through on this!). It helps to have some sort of visual cue, since those don’t initiate backtalk. It could be putting your hands over your ears signaling you won’t listen, turning around and walking away, clapping your hands twice, etc. As you coach them through this, I suggest something like this: I’ve decided that you need a signal that reminds you of this new rule that fits won’t get you what you want. When you start to throw a fit, I will say, “Fits don’t work anymore” and I will turn and walk away from you. It will look like this (model how you will do this calmly…even if your blood is boiling inside). If we are in public, I will say it and then take you to the car so you can throw your fit in there. When you are done, we can talk about what happened, but you will NOT ever get what you want because you threw a fit.
- Finally, explain why this behavior won’t work any more. It’s okay to tell them you’re tired of it, but honestly the reason you want it to stop is because you love them. When I talk to my kids (or my students!) about these things, I usually say something like this: I love you too much to let you act like this. You are such a good kid and I want everyone to see that. Kids that throw fits and get whatever they want usually don’t make good friends and are hard to play with. I want you to be happy and have friends to play with. I think that is more important than giving you _____________ (more screen time, a new toy, etc.).
And after you’ve done all of this during a calm time where the behavior isn’t happening (this is SUPER important to do), you wait. You wait for the behavior to come. I promise it will, unless you have a child that is like the adult that sees a police officer once on that stretch of road and never speeds again. We know how rare those individuals are, but they are out there! I’m guessing if your child happens to be one of those, however, you aren’t searching for answers on how to make a behavior stop! Once your child exhibits this behavior, you HAVE to do exactly what you said you were going to do. You probably won’t see an exact change the first time it happens. However, if you continue to do this every single time the behavior happens, it’s like giving a person a speeding ticket every single time they speed on a certain stretch of road. They will get tired of not getting their intended result. Consistency is key, and it’s really up to you to make it happen. If your kid keeps doing it, more than likely it’s because it works. The change has to start with you as a parent before you’ll see the change in your kids.