When Temper Tantrums Become a Way of Life

Mother with angry young daughter

Four year old Sarah throws temper tantrums, won’t go to bed, refuses to take a bath, and is described by her parents as “hell on wheels.” Peter, age seven, won’t take his dishes into the kitchen or perform other simple household chores. Thirteen year old David stays up past his bed time, argues with his parents about everything, and has begun skipping school. His parents just don’t know what to do.

Do any of these children sound familiar? If so, you may know an oppositional and defiant child. Children who have spent years waiting for a family, whether in foster care in this country or in an orphanage abroad, sometimes learn negative behavior to survive. Acting out, they find, is a way to attract attention in an institution or foster home. They may then carry this behavior with them to a new home.

Any child, including one raised from birth in the same family, can develop oppositional behavior. Once a child learns to misbehave as a way of getting his parent’s attention, unhappy parents may make matters worse by not acknowledging positive behavior when it occurs. A self reinforcing cycle begins as the child misbehaves in order to get the attention that positive behavior did not bring.

The next step comes when avoiding an undesirable chore becomes a habit. Peter’s parents asked me, “Why does he act the way he does? He spends more time avoiding doing what we ask him to do than it would take to do it!” From Peter’s point of view, every minute that he is able to avoid doing an undesirable task is time that he can continue to do what he enjoys, such as watching TV or not going to bed.

Oppositional behavior in most children can be effectively treated through a structured program of behavior modification. One caveat, however, is that children with attachment difficulties do not respond to the techniques described below. All of the listed techniques are based on reestablishing a positive relationship between parent and child. Because the child’s behavior is motivated by a strong need to be in control, rather than a desire for parental attention, he or she hears parental requests as demands to be resisted. A very different set of responses is warranted, ones that will be the subject of a future article.

Strategies for Changing Patterns of Oppositional Behavior

Changing oppositional behavior of well-attached children can almost always be accomplished through a two-step program. Parents must first give their child positive attention in a structured fashion without the child’s having to misbehave to get it. Parents may then move to techniques to end the offending behaviors.

During the first stage, parents should begin by devoting ten or fifteen minutes each day to simply playing with their child. During this playtime, the parent does not give commands, but instead follows the child’s lead in play activities and makes positive comments to the child. This is not the time, for example, to comment on the child’s messy room. The goal of these play periods is to reestablish warmth, connection, and attention in what might have become a contentious environment.

Next, parents should find opportunities to praise the child for appropriate behavior, i.e. for not behaving in specific ways that are annoying. A child who interrupts constantly, for example, might be asked to play quietly while the parent reads a magazine. Every few minutes, the parent praises the child for playing quietly and allowing the parent to read. The time between verbal reinforcements is gradually extended. Parents are advised to watch carefully for positive behaviors that warrant notice and comment.

The second step is to eliminate the undesirable behaviors. Time out sessions, point systems, charts, and other methods are highly effective with oppositional behavior. Point systems can work well, but to be effective these involve monitoring twenty to thirty behaviors and are thus complex to implement well. I strongly encourage parents who think that they need a home reward system to contact a professional to coach them to develop and implement such a system. Time outs, when used properly, are another excellent method to extinguish undesirable behaviors.

Another strategy involves creating situations in which all of the difficulty resulting from undesirable behavior rests on the child’s shoulders rather than on the parent’s. In other words, rather than allowing the child to create a conflict between himself and the parent, make sure that the conflict and consequences affect only the child. For example, a parent who argues with a child about coming to dinner is the one bearing the consequences of the child’s refusal to join the table.

An alternative is to let the child know that dinner will be served shortly, that the child can to come to dinner when he or she is ready. The parents would then provide no further reminders or discussion. However, if supper is over by the time the child gets to dinner, the parent’s response to the child’s question, “What’s for dinner?” can be a simple, “Breakfast.” In this example, the child’s dawdling created the natural consequence of a missed meal. The parent is not nagging, yelling, reminding, or punishing the child. Parents can find creative ways to allow natural consequences to shape the child’s behavior.

Parents whose children are oppositional or defiant might want to consult “Your Defiant Child: 8 Steps to Better Behavior” by Russell Barkley for assistance in structuring a program to change their child’s behavior. If a program implemented at home does not result in significant change within a month, seek professional guidance to determine whether other issues are present.

Parents must find a way to enjoy time with their child before they can end defiant behavior.

© Copyright 2008 by Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D., therapist in Williamsville, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 22 comments
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  • Amyhop

    April 11th, 2008 at 10:30 AM

    I think that some of those are good suggestions, but what I think is an even better tool is to teach children from a very young age that behavior such as that cited is simply unacceptable. You have to start teching children to be responsible and caring from a very early age and without structure and discipline they will often exhibit this kind of behavior because they know there will be no consequences for their actions.

  • Jillian

    April 11th, 2008 at 10:31 AM

    That is probably a lot easier said than done. While none of us are perfect parents, we all make mistakes and often do not know how to modify behavior once it presents itself. The article offered some great tips- thanks!

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 11th, 2008 at 12:59 PM

    Amyhop, you are right. Best to begin early to avoid problems. This article is written for those who are now facing problems and need solutions.

    Jillian, thank you. Yes, this is hard work, but the results are well worth it…it will make the family a happier place for everyone.

  • Cynthia V

    April 16th, 2008 at 3:32 PM

    I wonder what adoptive parents who find themselves in these situations do? They really have no way of knowing a child’s true background and what they may have experienced in another home and therefore they may often be at a loss for how to deal with these situations. Do you have any recommendations which are different for adoptive families dealing with what in some cases may be traumatic histories?

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 17th, 2008 at 2:17 PM

    Most people who adopt domestically through social services receive some information about their child’s background and what the child has experienced…in order to terminate parental rights, there has to be strong and compelling evidence of the birth family’s inability to provide an appropriate home, end the neglect or abuse, etc. There is an article on my web site about the “subtle signs” of early institutional care that may be of interest to you and relevant to your question.

    Oppositional and defiant behavior that is rooted in trauma is often driven by fear and lack of trust not, predominantly, attention seeking. Therefore you would address this quite differently…attunement and time-in strategies are often useful.

    I hope this helps…let me know what you think.

  • maddie

    April 21st, 2008 at 3:45 AM

    That’s a great question Cynthia. I have some very good friends who have adopted children and they are having a very hard time with one in particular. He has had a great home life while here in this country, but who knows what kinds of things he was subjected to as a young child overseas that he may have repressed and is now acting out on. As far as those parents who willingly allow their kids and their fits to control their lives I think they should rethink the sorts of things that they are teaching their kids about life by allowing them to think and behave in this manner. It is only going to cause them grief in the end because they are never going to know how to behave in society.

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 21st, 2008 at 8:43 AM

    Dear Maddie,

    For many families oppositional and defiant behavior is rooted in the child seeking attention. It can also often be rooted in what is called “negative reinforcement.” Meaning, that the arguing and defiance are rewarding because these behaviors postpone a “noxious” stimulus (having to turn off the TV, go to bed, clean up, etc.). The more the parent argues with the child, or tries to explain and reason, the longer the noxious stimuli is postponed and the more the behavior is reinforced. An excellent book is Your Defiant Child by Russell Barkely.

  • John Petersen, PsyD

    John Petersen, PsyD

    April 21st, 2008 at 1:51 PM

    Even without information about the child’s background, we can take kids as they are and learn to understand them. For the most part brain chemistry and social history do not drive children’s behavior, although it certainly influences them. I prefer to view children as creatively making meaning of self and others, just like adults do. The past and biology can add to the mix, but I think it is important that we respect children enough to engage their view, opinions, and agency in changing their lives.

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 22nd, 2008 at 3:26 AM

    Dear John & Maddie,

    Most often, tantrums are a child’s way of getting attention. This can build in the family into a “vicious” cycle in which when the child is well-behaved, the parents “let sleeping dogs lie.” The child then acts out to get the parents attention. In addition, negative reinforcement often keeps this cycle going. The child want to avoid something, such as having to clean up, brush his or her teeth, go to bed, etc. The longer the parent argues, cojoles, or tries to coax the child, the longer the “noxious” stimulus is avoided, hence the arguing and oppositional and defiant behaviors are rewarded (the ODD behaviors postpone the noxious stimulus and so the more the parent argues the more the parent is reinforcing the defiant behaviors.).

    I usually recommend that parents read, Your Defiant Child by Russell Barkley. In addition, there is a therapist manual that goes along with this with an eight session outline that is evidence-based and very effective. I’ve found that within the eight sessions younger children (under age 12) are much less problematic. The focus of this program is on parenting behavior. In fact, all the sessions are with the parent, not with the child.

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 22nd, 2008 at 4:05 PM

    Maddie and John,

    Oppositional and defiant behavior can be a bid for attention by the child. If the child does not get attention, misbehavior is sure to get it. In addition, if the parent of such a child then responds with a “let sleeping dogs lie” attitude, then the child may react with ODD behavior to get attention.

    Another factor can be negative reinforcement. If the child does not want to clean up, go to bed, brush teeth, etc., any actions that postpones this “noxious” stimulus will be reinforcing. So, if the child says, “NO!” and the parent argues, or negotiates, or discusses the issue, the longer this goes on, the more the child’s oppositional behavior is reinforced as this behavior is postponing the “noxious” stimulus.” This is way it is best to not argue or cajole.

    A great resource for parents is, Your Defiant Child, by R. Barkley. There is also a Therapist Manual. This is an evidence-based well researched program that takes about eight sessions. I’ve found that it is very effective most of the time with children under the age of ten to twelve. The program focuses on the parents’ behavior and actions. In fact, all the sessions are just with the parents. It is a very effective program and I highly recommend it.

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    Art Becker-Weidman

    April 22nd, 2008 at 4:08 PM

    Maddie and John,

    Oppositional and defiant behavior can be a bid for attention by the child.
    If the child does not get attention, misbehavior is sure to get it. In
    addition, if the parent of such a child then responds with a “let sleeping
    dogs lie” attitude, then the child may react with ODD behavior to get
    attention.

    Another factor can be negative reinforcement. If the child does not want
    to clean up, go to bed, brush teeth, etc., any actions that postpones this
    “noxious” stimulus will be reinforcing. So, if the child says, “NO!” and
    the parent argues, or negotiates, or discusses the issue, the longer this
    goes on, the more the child’s oppositional behavior is reinforced as this
    behavior is postponing the “noxious” stimulus.” This is way it is best to
    not argue or cajole.

    A great resource for parents is, Your Defiant Child, by R. Barkley. There
    is also a Therapist Manual. This is an evidence-based well researched
    program that takes about eight sessions. I’ve found that it is very
    effective most of the time with children under the age of ten to twelve.
    The program focuses on the parents’ behavior and actions. In fact, all the
    sessions are just with the parents. It is a very effective program and I
    highly recommend it.

  • John Petersen

    John Petersen

    April 23rd, 2008 at 1:16 PM

    What are the downsides of praise?

  • ashley

    April 24th, 2008 at 3:09 AM

    I think that it is so sad when a child recognizes or craves recognition and acknowledgement so badly that he will even take a negative reaction from those in a parental role versus being ignored. Parents who allow this in their homes need to be re-educated on what it means to be a good parent! Children behave how they are taught to behave and if you are teaching your child that the best you can do for them is provide them with negative behavior then you need some parenting classes.

  • runninfast

    April 28th, 2008 at 5:34 AM

    The first sentence in this article really speaks volumes to me, where it talks about the fact that many parents must find a way to enjoy their time with their children. Children know very well when they are being brushed off and in many cases the way that they deal with this is to exhibit the negative behavior just to get attention. Very sad.

  • gamecock96

    April 28th, 2008 at 5:36 AM

    It is sad but you know that this kind of thing is rampant in society. I was just in a boolstore yesterday evening and saw the unhappiest parent with his kids- talking down to them and I can just imagine that most of the time these kids either hunker down and hide or act out to get attention from him.

  • Art Becker-Weidman

    April 28th, 2008 at 12:47 PM

    It is important to provide children with positive attention; otherwise they will find a way to get your attention in negative ways…after all, doing negative things will certainly get your attention! Runninfast is right on target here. Children need time with parents if the child is to feel valued and good about him/her self. Luckily, if this becomes a problem, there are realatively quick and easy ways to remedy the situation. Thanks for your comments.

  • Jeni

    April 30th, 2008 at 7:01 AM

    Agreed. . . children behave as they are taught to behave, and in many cases, how they are rewarded for behaving. This may mean getting yelled at but for some that is better than nothing.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D.

    April 30th, 2008 at 2:44 PM

    Dear Jeni,

    Yes, often negative attention is better than no attention. In addition, the oppositional behavior can be negatively reinforced by the parents arguing with the child. The child, for example, does not want to turn off the TV. The more the parent argues or cojoles the child, the longer the negative stimulus (turning off the TV) is postponed and hence, the arguing with the parent is reinforced by the parent’s behavior.

  • Carolyn

    May 19th, 2008 at 5:49 AM

    Why is it so hard for the adults to see clearly when we get into situations and battles like this with our children? It is like we cease to be adults and revert back to being childish ourselves!

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D.

    May 20th, 2008 at 4:32 AM

    Dear Carolyn,

    I think that often parents have good intentions. They want to set appropriate rules for their child and then try to do so. In the process the parent may get caught up in a power struggle. If you couple this will a very busy schedule and less attention to the child than the child needs, ODD behaviors can develop as a way to getting the parent’s attention.

  • tina

    June 29th, 2014 at 11:06 PM

    My 4 year old shows all these signs especially ay bed time. Since she was little I enforced good behavior. Im not a perfect mom and I have days that im exaughsted from battling to get her to bed that i dont have the energy to play with her. But I still do it. And yet she still acts out basically all day. Im one of those parents that you would see in the store that looks miserable. But I love my girls and do everything I can to make them happy and still enforce rules. Does that mean I need to be in parenting classes? My daughters are very strong willed and stubborn and im having all the problems described in the above post. Mainly with my four year old. So what could I do to make things better?

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, PhD

    Arthur Becker-Weidman, PhD

    June 30th, 2014 at 11:07 AM

    Dear Tina,

    I’d suggest you get a copy of Russell Barkley’s book, Your Defiant Child. It is a good program for parents. If you need support in implimenting it, find a good local therapist or, you can always contact me and we can manage the consultation and support via skype.
    regards

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