“I'm not going!” screams our six-year-old. He spews forth a stream of rude comments, dashes into his room and slams the door. Welcome to the realm of the temperamental tantrum.
Parents find themselves feeling helpless in the face a child's tantrums. The child knows what he wants and demands that his parents come through with the goods. Most likely, he has developed effective means of wearing their patience thin and draining what remains of their physical and emotional stamina. He refuses to obey, casts off any attempt to control him, and as likely as not, forces the parent to give in through a war of attrition. As though it were a foregone conclusion, the parents throw up their hands in despair and give in to their child. How does the child react to his victory?
Rather than calming down and appreciating his parents' concession, the child develops even stronger “muscles.” His demands grow with his successes; so does his determination to get his way. He threatens to turn the whole house upside down; he relates to his younger siblings like a dictator, and sometimes even tries his hand at giving orders to those who are his seniors. Even those several years older prefer not to cross swords with him, because they know the results will not be pleasant for anyone.
From conflict to conflict, the child gains more power and self-confidence. The parents, in contrast, are quickly losing whatever remained of their own self-assurance. Shaking their heads, they ask themselves where it will all end. “What is the solution? Where did we go wrong? We gave him everything he asked for; why does he carry on?”
This is just the point. The parents gave the child everything that they thought he wanted, but, in doing so, have failed to provide what the child truly needs: Limitations. Rules. A framework within which to move and grow safely, knowing that my parents will not let me overstep the bounds and harm myself.
The obstreperous child's demonstrations of power and temper are acted out only in order to test the parent: “Will you stop me before I hurt myself and others? Do you care enough about me not to let me break every rule in the book?”
Unless the parent intervenes and clearly delineates the borderlines, the child will test them again and again, each time overstepping the red line a bit more. He needs to find out how Mother or Father will react. He expects the adults around him to put a limit on his disobedience; that they will tell him in no uncertain terms: “Up to here, and no further!”
Instead, some parents quiver in fright at their child's display of anger and continue to submit to his tantrum. Each time they give in, the child's rebellious behavior is re-enforced. It has proven itself an efficient way of getting some attention and releasing his anger. The child would be a fool not to use so efficient a tool again and again.
The parents' weakness and submissiveness derives not from a conviction that they are doing what is best for their child; they simply lack the conviction to put their foot down, or fear that they will be overly harsh. Or, perhaps the easiest way out, the least demanding for the moment, is just to give in to his demands. In either case, the child senses their feeling of helplessness, and this fuels him to storm and rant even more. The only way the parents will break out of this vicious circle is by taking a firm stand and establishing clear rules and regulations which the child is expected to obey without exception. If they are to succeed in this project, the parents must sincerely be convinced that these rules are for the child's own good, not merely their own convenience. Certainly their motivation must not be to win the battle just in order to “teach him a lesson.” Likewise, they must carefully weigh each step of the new regime: Are the rules appropriate to the child's age and capabilities? Is it important that the child carry out those demands?
If the issues involved are trivial, the parent will lack the determination to see that the child indeed sticks to the rules. If they are too difficult or too numerous, the battle will be uphill, and difficult, to say the least. The chances of giving up and returning to the bedlam of tantrums is that much more likely, because we have bitten off more than we (or our child) can chew. The child must be presented with a clear-cut situation; likewise, he must be convinced that the parent is determined to see the matter through, so that there is no way for him to inveigle his way out, whether by bargaining and promising to be good, or by throwing a tantrum and threatening to make life impossible for everyone around him.
Furthermore, he must feel that his parents will support him in his efforts to comply, and that they will do all they can to empower him to keep the rules. He must sense that his parents are confident that he can and will eventually obey the regulations they have set out for him, because, essentially, he is a good person and a loving son.
The clever parent will find ways of encouraging the child without belittling him or making him feel coerced to do something against his will. Parents will do well to let the child know that they understand that it is not always easy for him, and that they appreciate his efforts. The endless cycle of tantrums and power struggles, rebukes and harsh words, can be greatly reduced and nearly eliminated when the child sees that Father and Mother are taking the reins firmly in hand. As the violent scenes become less frequent, the child will start to build a positive bond with his parents. Parents, siblings, and the child himself will find life much rosier, and the atmosphere in the home will be far calmer. At this stage in particular, it is of utmost importance that the parents take care not to demand too much of the child, too quickly.
Throughout, the child must clearly feel that his parents' demands arise not from their own interests to make life easier, nor from a desire to demonstrate who is in charge. Children are very sensitive to what motivates adults. To succeed in effecting this transformation, it is essential that the child feel that his parents are acting out of a heartfelt desire to do what is best for him, and that they will continue to do so, even if it requires a great deal of effort on their part.
A precious treasure has been deposited in our safekeeping. As parents, it is our task to guard it to the utmost, so far as lies within our power. Let us do our best to succeed in the sacred task entrusted to us.