MANAGING TANTRUMS IN
Children with autism
have been known to have a temper tantrum or two. Think about why
a child may have a tantrum. That's right, they work! Tantrums can
get children what they want, or they would not have them. What do
children want? Candy, attention, favorite toys, not to go to bed,
to continue self-stimulating, not to take medicine, more cookies,
no more broccoli, and on and on.
Children want what they want, when they want it.
There are some things you can do to prevent tantrum behavior (e.g.,
teach children to wait) but that cannot help you when you are at
the shops with a screaming child! The best solution for a temper
tantrum is a commitment from all people who have regular contact
with your child to ignore
the temper tantrum and never give the child what he is tantrumming
for as long as he is still having a tantrum. Here's how to do it
and stay sane.
What Is A Tantrum?
A tantrum is a form of communication. It's a way
for the child to say: "Look, parents and the whole world, you'd
better give me what I want!" A tantrum is a normal reaction
to frustration (not getting what you want) that has grown into a
It is normal for a child to express anger when disappointed. Anger
is a healthy response as long as it is expressed in a socially acceptable
When a child expresses anger, our first reaction
may be amusement. It's cute when a toddler gets mad. Their face
frowns up, they say cute things, and they seem so pitiful. Our second
reaction, unfortunately, may be to give in to them. This is when
a normal anger reaction may turn into a tantrum. The child learns
quickly that this tool they have just discovered is like magic.
It gets the child what he wants.
As time goes on, parents get angry too and begin
ignore, yell, and, eventually, to give in again. This is why many
parents say, "I tried ignoring, but it did not work."
You cannot ignore for a while. You must always ignore, in all situations,
or it will not work. The child must learn that you will never give
in to him when he is tantrumming. What happens when we ignore, yell,
or punish for a while and then give in? The child has learned that
for a tantrum to work, it must be loud and must last for a long
time! To stop a tantrum, you and all who have regular contact with
your child will have to agree to never give in to a tantrum. This
is very hard to do! If you cannot commit to this, then stop reading
now and find a way to enjoy the tantrums.
One strategy is to let the child know that reinforcement
is currently not available. It can be used when a child wants something
that he can have, but not by throwing a tantrum.
Parent: “No crying.” (Start counting as soon as
the child takes a breath but stops as soon as the crying begins
Parent: Repeat “No crying” (Resume counting each time the child
Eventually stops crying for a full count of 10.
Parent: "What do you want?"
Where a child has echolalia,
he may begin using the number sequence as a request for the desired
object. The numbers should then be counted non-verbally using your
fingers instead. In some cases the counting procedure may actually
escalate the tantrum because the presence of the parent still suggests
that he can get what he wants. This can be especially true if the
tantrums have worked in the past to get the child what he wants.
Planned ignoring should then be used.
Planned ignoring, or tactical
ignoring, is a strategy to deal with behaviors that thrive on
attention. It is not to be used when the tantrum causes harm to
the child, others, or property. To ignore the child harming self,
others, or property would be teaching a behavior that is much worse
than a tantrum. If your child is harming self, others, or property,
ask the professionals working with you for another strategy. Here's
how to implement planned ignoring for tantrums:
Consistent response from everyone
Everyone who has regular contact with your child
must agree to use this approach for each and every tantrum. If your
child can understand you, when he is calm, tell your child that
you will not pay attention to any tantrums (use words he understands)
and that you will not give him what he wants as long as he is having
Complete ignoring of the tantrum
Whenever and wherever a tantrum occurs, it must
be completely ignored. This means no positive or negative attention.
The tantrum should be treated as if it did not exist and that it
will change nothing for the good or bad in your child's life. Do
not look at your child (except out of the corner of your eye to
assure your child's safety). Do not talk to your child, correct
your child, yell at your child, reason with your child, comment
on the tantrum, or explain your actions to your child. Do not touch
your child (except to protect him from harming himself, others,
or property). Step over your child if you have to. No hugs, spankings,
pats, squeezes, etc. Do not give your child anything to distract
him, especially the item he is tantrumming for.
Lavish praise to other children for their appropriate behavior
Do not talk to others in the room about the child's
tantrum. Talk to other adults about the news, sports, or weather.
Focus on the other children or people in the room and what they
are doing right. Also, do not ignore good behavior when it occurs
at other times. When you see your child behaving well, sitting quietly,
tell him so: "I like how you are sitting so quietly!"
This will let the child know that you pay attention to good behavior,
If you are alone, occupy your attention with other activities
Read a book, call a friend (this may be a good
idea as long as the friend will support you in your new, tough-love
stance with your child - but do not call anyone who will convince
you to give in), listen to music, watch television, sweep the floor,
anything to distract you from paying attention to your child's tantrum.
Positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior
When the tantrum stops (in the beginning, this
may take a long time), wait a few moments, and then praise your
child for the next appropriate behavior. Do not discuss the tantrum
and do not give your child the item or privilege he was tantrumming
for until 30 minutes have passed. At that time it is appropriate
to say: "Now ask me again for a cookie (or the item that set
the tantrum off - if it is appropriate to have at that time)."
Praise the child for appropriate asking and give the item, if appropriate.
reinforcement will encourage appropriate behavior.
When To Intervene in a tantrum
If your child begins to hurt himself, others,
or property during a tantrum, you must intervene. If your child
is trying to hurt others, remove the others from his reach and give
the others your full attention. Do not talk to your child while
intervening. Continue to ignore the tantrum. If your child is hurting
himself, remove any items that may harm your child or move your
child to a safer place. Do not talk to your child and use only the
amount of physical contact necessary to assure your child's safety.
Make all your actions appear to be matter-of-fact. Treat the tantrum
with as little attention as possible. Not unlike the way you deal
with an unpleasant noise from outside over which you have no control.
If your child was in the middle of completing
a task for you when the tantrum began, ignore the tantrum but make
sure the child completes the task, even if it means hand-over-hand
help. For example, if you asked your child to pick up the toys and
then the tantrum began, do not allow the tantrum to get the child
out of the chore. Without talking to the child, help him pick up
the toys and put them away. When the task is finished, walk away
without praising your child, unless the tantrum stopped. You may
also wait for the tantrum to stop and then have your child complete
Getting help in dealing with tantrums
Talk with supportive people who understand what
you are doing with your child. Hopefully, you have a spouse, minister,
friend, family member, and/or professional to share your progress
with. This will help keep you on track and will help you deal with
the strange looks you will get from people in the community who
do not understand what you are doing to your child.
Have someone else observe your ignoring to make
sure you are not providing any inadvertent attention to your child.
Stick to the planned ignoring for at least one month before thinking
about changing tactics. Behaviors that have been around for a long
time will take longer to extinguish. If the tantrum behavior occurs
again after it has stopped, apply the planned ignoring all over
again. Your child must get the idea that tantrums do not help them
or hurt them, they just get ignored!
Tantrums as a request for attention
Children with autism often communicate through
their behavior. That may well be what is going on in a tantrum.
You may acknowledge that you understand that the child is trying
to tell you something but "you must use your words" or
communicate in some other way.
As long as the child is not tantrumming, give
praise when the child uses his words. Also, make sure you listen,
don't ignore good communication (get up and meet the need or request
if it is appropriate - or explain why it is not appropriate). Often
we parents get busy and put the child off for too long once he has
asked appropriately for something. Show your child that appropriate
communication is rewarded and honored.
A tantrum can be a request for attention. Parents
have a natural tendency to run to their children when they are in
distress. Unfortunately, children can learn to get attention just
by screaming. It is important that you stop reinforcing the behavior
by giving attention to your child. Instead, give lots of positive
attention during appropriate behaviors. For example, approach him
when he is playing quietly and offer lots of hugs and kind words
(or whatever works as positive
reinforcement for the child).
Never give attention to the problem behavior again. Time out or
ignoring will work if the problem behavior is an attempt to gain
attention. If the child is using self-injurious
or destructive behavior to gain attention, don't leave the child
alone. Block the behavior and protect the child but do not say anything
and do not provide any “soothing” touches.
Be aware of sensory issues that can cause tantrums
Lastly, for real. Some tantrums are related to
issues. A tantrum may occur due to your child's hearing a noise,
seeing something that they dislike or are afraid of, smelling something,
etc. If you suspect this, look into the sensory issues and consult
your child's occupational therapist for sensory
integration ideas. Some children enjoy tantrums because they
lead to the parent holding the child. I know some therapists recommend
holding a child to relieve the tantrum. Just my opinion: I think
this gives too much attention and may actually reinforce the tantrum.
Some children do things in a tantrum that cause
them self-harm (e.g., banging head, hitting self, etc.) and can
lead to self-injurious
behavior - sometimes this is a sensory issue also. Researchers
believe some children hurt themselves to release endorphins in the
body that then provides them with a sensation they enjoy. If your
child is hurting himself, please contact a psychologist or psychiatrist
or other medical professional for evaluation.
written by Gary J. Heffner, creator of The Autism Home Page at MSN Groups.
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Visit http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/environmental.msnw which is the autism home page of Gary Heffner, the author of this
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is one of the few autism websites offering free comprehensive information.