Understanding Why My Child Is Having a Tantrum

Have you been in a store and witnessed a child dramatically drop to the floor, kicking and screaming? Maybe it’s over a toy, some candy or something that the child wants and cannot have immediately. In other settings, there may be other reasons for such an outburst.

Most parents have experienced the tantrum, from their own kids, or the children of friends or relatives. Perhaps the last thing a harried caregiver wants to do when faced with a child in the midst of a temper tantrum is to analyze the behavior.

But that analysis could be the best approach says Sonia Salman, BCBA, Co-owner and Clinical Director of Bright Behavior Therapy, a therapy center in Dearborn for children with autism. Bright Behavior Therapy is owned by two passionate Board Certified Behavior Analysts who strive to help children diagnosed with autism reach their full potential.

“There can be several reasons why your child is having a tantrum,” Salman says. “This behavior can be due to sensory issues, to escape an unwanted situation, to gain access to something tangible — like a candy bar — or to meet attention needs,” she explains. “We look at why the behavior is happening in order to respond.”

Salman is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). BCBAs use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a scientifically proven therapy for behavior interventions.

ABA therapy is used for individuals with autism in schools, workplaces, homes, and clinics. ABA focuses on improving specific behaviors and is effective for children and adults. The American Psychological Association classifies ABA as “an evidence-based practice,” meaning it is supported as a form of treatment by peer-reviewed literature.

ABA therapy can help practitioners and parents get to the heart of why kids have tantrums and how to prevent them. Each child is different, and tantrum behaviors can differ. So what exactly is a tantrum?

“We define a tantrum as one or more behaviors of kicking, screaming, crying, falling to the floor, hitting or throwing objects and more,” says Eman Hamdan, BCBA and Co-owner and Clinical Director at Bright Behavior Therapy.

It is important is to identify why the tantrum is occurring to target effective responses. “The biggest struggle for parents is how to respond appropriately when their child is having a tantrum,” Hamdan says.

Here, Hamdan and Salman share insight into one reason why children have these behavioral responses and what parents can do to respond — and preempt — their child’s tantrum.

Rewarding desired behavior

ABA therapy uses reinforcement techniques to change unwanted behavior. In many cases, it’s important to reward desired behavior — and a lot of effective responses can be used by parents.

“For example, if a child sees a chocolate bar, begins screaming and ultimately gets the candy, you reinforce the screaming behavior,” Hamdan says.

So, what’s a better response for the stressed parent?

ABA therapy teaches alternative responses. “If you say to the child, ‘If you will stop crying for two minutes, I will give you a piece of candy,’ this reinforces the quiet behavior, not the screaming,” Salman says. No rewards are given for tantrum behaviors, and quiet behavior is reinforced.

Salman adds that parent reinforcement strategies are an important part of ABA therapy and these strategies are taught during weekly parent training sessions with the BCBA. ABA therapists with Bright Behavior Therapy can provide sessions in the home, in stores, at grandparent’s homes and with siblings. This allows the child with autism to experience appropriate behaviors in different settings, and with all caregivers and family members. “Attending all sessions is important,” Salman says.

“We also have sessions out in the community. Therapy is not just in the center,” Hamdan says, adding that plans are customized based on the child’s age.

“You can set up a behavior plan in advance of going to the store,” Hamdan suggests. If you can predict that your child will begin crying and screaming when they see an item they want, you can prepare in advance by making a behavior contract with your child.

That behavior contract might sound something like, “If you act appropriately by walking with me and waiting patiently, you may have a piece of a candy bar,” or another reward the child enjoys, the experts suggest.

“By using proactive strategies before the tantrum behavior occurs, the child learns that no matter how hard they kick and scream, they will not be rewarded, and the activity will still have to be completed,” Salman adds.

Learn more about Bright Behavior Therapy in Dearborn at mybrighttherapy.com.

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