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Diana Boggia: Mother wants to help young son out of his tantrum stage

Diana Boggia

Dear Diana: I thoroughly enjoy your articles and put to use your advice. I have a soon-to-be 4-year-old, and general discipline has worked well the first 4 years. But I'm having issues with tantrums.  Not all-out roll-on-the-ground screaming fits, but if he misses a ball during a game, or isn’t “first” in a race, or doesn’t get the spot in line he thinks should be his, he simply throws himself on the ground and lies there. Like a limp doll. Sometimes a plaintive whine comes out, but mostly he just lies there with his head in his hands and “pouts.” 

This was very embarrassing the other day when he did this during a baseball game at a friend’s house. How should I deal with this? 

Thank you,

Mom of an almost-4-year-old

Dear Mom: I commend you on your parenting accomplishments of raising a child who does not exhibit flat-out, roll-on-the-floor tantrums! Also, please know that you are not alone; because at one time or another, every parent has experienced humiliation or embarrassment brought on by a child.

However, it is very important that we focus on what is the best intervention at the time of a tantrum, rather than allow our embarrassment to take over and lead us to be ineffective. It is wonderful that you are addressing this now, as this behavior is frowned upon in organized team sports as they get older. 

Developmentally, your son is right on track. Late 3s and early 4s are wild with wonder and filled with frustration. They have learned cause and effect, but continue to test surroundings and circumstances, to test our consistency. Start your “work” at home. Remain dedicated and consistent, and you will see remarkable changes in his emotional functioning.

Teach: Teach your son to identify his feelings. Children who learn to express themselves have higher self esteem and fewer misbehaviors because they are able to communicate. The more familiar, comfortable and expressive he is with his feelings, the less need he will have to act them out.

Play: Play lots of games at your house, at least one per day. Some parents let their kids win all the time to make them feel better, but that does not teach a child how to be a gracious loser. It teaches that winning is everything. Try to win. When you win, tell him you loved playing with him, ask him to congratulate you and share high fives. When he wins, congratulate him, highlighting the fun and minimizing the win, and offer a high five. The more exposure he has to appropriate behavior for winning and losing, the more comfortable he will be in public and with peers.

Increase his acts of kindness: Teach him what it feels like to hold doors for others, or to offer them a spot in line. You can start modeling that in a cashier line, when someone behind you has only a few items. Talk about how good it feels to do for others …  that you can actually feel your heart fill up.

Socialize him: Set him up for success. Remind him of the time he sprawled on the ground at your friend’s house, and how embarrassed he must have felt. Let him know his friends want to play with him because he is fun, not because he wins, and that he is not fun to be with when he pouts on the field.

Tell him that if he loses or feels frustrated that he should come to you for help, and you will be so proud of him. Tell him that if he chooses to act out his feelings instead, you will go to him, see if there is anything you can do for him, and then you will join the other moms and kids. 

When he tests you, enjoy your teaching moment. Go to him with a loving touch, and tell him he looks upset. Tell him you’ll help him back in the game whenever he’s ready, and then you rejoin the group. Do not empower him with his attention-seeking behavior. Over time, he will learn how good it feels to be a part of the game, win or lose.

Diana Boggia, M.Ed., is a parenting educator in Stark County, Ohio, whose column appears in The Repository. Send your child-rearing questions to FamilyMatters@cantonrep.com or The Repository, c/o Family Matters, 500 Market Ave. S, Canton OH 44702.