Tantruming Tots


Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 1(3)

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

University of Nevada, Reno

My son just turned a year old. As any parent will tell you, watching your child grow and learn about the world is an amazingly fulfilling experience. And along with the joy comes the sometimes terrifying knowledge that as your child learns more skills, his frustrations and behavioral excesses also become more complicated. On particularly difficult days, I see glimpses of the potential tantrums my son might develop in the coming years. My husband and I keep an ongoing dialogue about avoiding situations that trigger these episodes and how to prevent ourselves from reinforcing whining and crying behaviors. Fortunately, when it comes to minimizing tantrum behaviors, we have some exemplary models to imitate.

Christina Lydon is a BCBA, practitioner, and doctoral student in Reno, Nevada. She and her husband, Wes, have two daughters. Their oldest, Elena, is three years old, and besides being one of the smartest preschoolers I have ever known (she knows when to use “good” and when to use “well” in complex sentences), Elena is extremely well behaved. Over the years, I have talked with both Christina and Wes about how they minimized Elena’s challenging but typical toddler behaviors. Their answers are everything you would expect from the family of a Behavior Analyst.

The Lydons make a point to identify functions of precursor-to-tantrum behaviors and teach replacement behaviors. During the instances in which Elena engages in tantrum behaviors (e.g., screaming, crying, throwing herself on the floor), Christina and Wes withhold social attention while making sure she is unable to injure herself. Christina emphasizes they also make use of rules.

“What we do generally is re-state the rule, which is usually something along the lines of, ‘Once you calm down, we can talk about it,’ and then we wait for her to take a break from the crying/screaming,” Christina tells me. “Usually, while she is still crying, I’ll engage myself in another activity, sometimes in the same room and sometimes in the next room. When she then takes a break, or seems to calm (even just a little bit), I’ll come back to her, thank her for calming down, and then we can talk about her problem.”

As I said, these are measures you would expect in any behavior analytic-oriented family, but from my personal observations, the Lydons are very consistent in their application of these procedures. Now that I have a child of my own, I can understand just how impressive that is. I asked Christina how she maintains treatment integrity while experiencing all those emotions parents feel when their children cry, whine, or are otherwise emotionally distressed. One tool they use during particularly difficult episodes is to put physical distance between themselves and their toddler.

“Depending on the severity, we sometimes will carry her into her room and tell her that she can stay in there to calm down and come back out when she feels ready. We don’t close the door, and it isn’t meant to be a punishment but just a way for us to limit accidental reinforcement and to give her a place to calm down where she is comfortable. She usually ends up calming, playing for a little while, and then coming back out. At this point, we usually praise her for calming down (trying to reinforce that little bit of self-management she just engaged in).” Still physical distance cannot eliminate a parent’s emotions.

“I generally feel more stress/frustration/exasperation than sadness,” Christina says. “Usually to decompress I’ll have to spend a little time alone or talking to Wes as a sort of debrief.” Another tool they use involves more objective evaluations of the event. “Usually, some of the things she does are funny in retrospect, so looking at it again more objectively later can help, as can specifically looking for the humor in the situation.”

After a stressful incident, Christina says re-establishing the parent-child bond can be valuable. “It helps to do something fun together afterwards, to specifically pair myself with reinforcement after having to lay down the law, so to speak.”

By implementing behavior analytic techniques when addressing their daughter’s tantruming behavior, including teaching replacement behaviors, making use of rules, putting tantruming on extinction, maintaining treatment integrity, reinforcing appropriate behavior, and managing their own covert behaviors, Christina and Wes Lydon create an environment in which their daughter’s tantruming behaviors are minimized or avoided completely. In their parenting style, the Lydons are living it! (I merely hope I can follow in their footsteps with my own child.).


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