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Friday, November 22, 2013

Setting Limits and Avoiding Tantrums


When parents come into my office, there is a common question that I can bet will be asked at some point: How do I set limits but also avoid a tantrum? For children with learning difficulties, this can be especially tricky because there can be an additional stress component or difficulties with expressive language, which can further complicate matters.

Clarifying the Situation:
When families are struggling with frequent meltdowns, I ask parents a few questions to clarify the situation:

  • What patterns are you noticing? 
  • Is there a particular time of day that the child has this reaction? 
  • What emotions are associated with the behavior? 
  • Is your child reacting to an unmet basic need such as sleep or hunger? 

Defining the Factors:
Once a pattern is established, consider the factors involved. 

  • If the reactions typically occur at the end of the day, what is your child trying to tell you? For example, are they tired at that point? Increased structure may improve your child's behaviors.
  • If it happens in the morning, do you find yourself so rushed that your daughter does not have time to say goodbye?
  • If tantrums occur in the afternoon, is your child exhausted from the school day? Adding a half hour of free time before starting homework can give him the break he needs.
If there is a pattern, it’s likely that there are identifiable triggers that can be addressed. Additions or changes in the routine can typically work to help to avoid predictable meltdowns. 

The Bottom Line:
Behavior is communication. When tantrums occur, ask yourself what your child is trying to tell you. 

Having trouble finding a pattern to the meltdowns? Next time I will address possible causes and solutions for tantrums that seem to come out of nowhere.

Emily Herber is a child and family therapist at the Center for Psychological Services.
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