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Stopping Temper Tantrums Before They Start

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My 4-year-old daughter, Emily, was at work with me one day, and I took her to the company cafeteria, which is packed with super-stylish fashion editors in stiletto heels," says Denise Kessler, 33, a magazine editor in New York City and mother of two from Katonah, NY. "Since there were no other seats, we had to sit at a big table right in the middle of the room. Emily was overtired, and she started shrieking. The women sitting next to me glared. Before I could whisk Emily out of there, she rocked back on her seat, and her chair -- and food -- clattered to the floor. All these women were scrambling to get their Gucci purses out of the way of her mess. Emily was fine. But I was pretty embarrassed."

The Public Tantrum. It can strike fear into the hearts of even the most together parents. And for good reason. "The biggest problem with temper tantrums is the threat of embarrassment," says Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., the Glen Ellyn, IL-based author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. "You fear that you're going to look like a totally inept parent in front of everyone. And by the time kids are 13 months old, they sense that."

The issues that tantrums raise for parents of young children strike surprisingly deep. "They touch a parent's deepest insecurities: What kind of child did you produce? A kid's behavior reflects on his parents' self-esteem," says Stan J. Katz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, CA. "The truth is, people do make judgments about how others parent. You can wear what you want in public, or say what you want, but when your child is acting up, people can be hypercritical without knowing the specifics of your situation."

Public behavior is an especially topical issue for today's dual-income couples. With time away from the office at a premium, many working parents are anxious to spend as much of that time as possible with their children. So they're taking kids into adult situations at a younger age, says Dr. Katz. Whether it's a quick trip to the Clinique counter at Bloomingdale's or a dinner party with friends, toddlers and preschoolers are now going almost everywhere that Mom and Dad go.

"We've seen a big increase in parents eating out with children," says Michael Mount, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association in Washington, DC. "Both parents are working, and they want to be with their kids instead of having to spend time cooking dinner."

It's simply the law of averages: The more you take an independent-minded toddler out, the greater the odds of a full-on tantrum. And when you're in the awkward position of having to discipline in front of a crowd, it's easy to be struck with a form of parenting performance anxiety. "Sometimes parents are so worried about what others will think, they're afraid to exercise appropriate control," says Dr. Katz. That anxiety can turn into frustation -- and anger. Combine a frustrated child with a stressed-out parent, and you have a recipe for a two-way meltdown.

Patience doesn't come easy, but that's what parents of young children need. A recent study by Murray Strauss, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and codirector of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory in Durham, found that by the time children are 5, fully 98% of parents have used some form of emotional aggression, including yelling, threatening, and name-calling. "When disciplining, it's important to focus on behavior and not emotionally attack your child," says Dr. Strauss. "People say, 'That's unrealistic.' But it's not unrealistic to refrain from yelling at coworkers. We have to treat our children at least as well as we treat our colleagues."

In the heat of the moment, it may help to remember that tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting; they're an essential developmental stage. "Tantrums help kids learn to deal with their negative emotions," says Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and director of the master's program in marital and family therapy at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. "Sometimes children get so overwhelmed with their new independence that they get overstimulated and melt down."

While there's no one right way to handle a tantrum, most experts agree on what doesn't work. At the top of the "don't" list are yelling and hitting, but short-term solutions such as bribing, begging, and giving in are also poor strategies. "If you give in, you are rewarding the tantrum and ensuring that it will happen again and again," says Dr. Katz. On the other hand, when kids know that "no" means "no" and when parents react calmly and consistently when their kids begin to act out, everyone feels happier and more in control.

The bottom line: Anticipating how an environment may affect your child and responding appropriately are key.

1. Disciplined Dining

Recognizing consumer demand, more and more restaurants, even chichi ones, welcome kids. Scott Campbell, owner and chef of Avenue restaurant on New York City's Upper West Side, offers organic baby food and burgers alongside coq au vin and steak frites.

"Our customers take their children out to eat from an early age," Campbell says. "It used to be considered uncool for a serious chef to serve a hamburger, but I'd rather make the kids something they love."

Of course, not all Happy Meal-free zones are as kid-friendly as Avenue. But no matter what restaurant you choose, it helps to go on the early side and to keep kids busy with books, crayons, and nonmessy toys. Bring along crackers for fidgety toddlers, and order bread or an appetizer as soon as you sit down. And, as simple as it sounds, don't forget to include your child in the conversation. "Look at the evening from his point of view," says June Solnit Sale, the Los Angeles-based coauthor of the Working Parents Handbook and a childcare expert for ParentsEdge.com. "Two adults who go out after not seeing each other all day have a lot to say. If the child just sits there, he's going to feel left out and restless."

It also helps to give your child a refresher course on restaurant etiquette, even if she's been out to dinner before. "I believe in discussing ahead of time what the rules are -- and reviewing them," says Dr. Katz. Explain what the child can bring and what she will be allowed to do when you get there. Remind her that she needs to stay in her seat and that throwing food, running, and yelling won't be tolerated. With older children, you can practice ordering from a menu.

Now the hard part: If your child acts up, you have to whisk him outside. "Even if you say to the waitress, 'We'll be back in five minutes,' take your child for a brief time-out," says Dr. Katz. Let him know that if it happens again, you're going to have to leave -- and then stick to it.

2. Party Pointers

The demands of parenthood make time with adult friends a precious commodity. And it can be tricky to decide which social occasions are truly kid-friendly and which are a recipe for disaster. Before including your child in adult gatherings, get a sense of the setting and tone of the party. Family potluck suppers are fun for all ages, but a formal dinner party usually isn't appropriate for preschool children. "Parents trick themselves into thinking that they're spending quality time with their kids by bringing them to an adult party," says Ray Levy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Dallas, TX, and coauthor of Try and Make Me!, a new book based on his work with strong-willed children. "You may have to decide whether to spend time with your kid at home or hire a babysitter and go to the party."

If children are welcome, plan distractions before you go. "I carry toys in my purse," says fashion designer Nicole Miller, whose son, Palmer, is 5. "And I've found it helps to bring your favorite food -- or even a special treat that might calm him down." When you arrive at your friend's home, do a quick sweep to place fragile or potentially dangerous items out of reach.

If your child really starts to act up, it's tempting to ignore it or give in. But effective discipline requires consistency; saying yes to a tearful demand for a fourth cup of soda, for example, sends a message that it's okay to cry to get your way. Just take him aside and discreetly address the issue. "Children get humiliated easily. Never reprimand in front of others," says Dr. Katz. Be aware of cues that your child is getting overtired, and time your exit accordingly.

3. Telecommuting Tactics

Today's unconventional work arrangements -- job sharing, working at home, four-day schedules -- have given rise to a new sticky situation: juggling an important call with your boss or client and a child who needs your attention now. It helps to remember that your child isn't setting out to be difficult. "Kids don't operate from the same rules we do. They don't recognize the home office as an office," says Dr. Katz.

Mary Kennedy, a director of finance at a Westport, CT, pharmaceutical market research firm and mother of four, is one of the 20 million American workers who telecommute. Before making business calls from home, she tells her older children, ages 6, 5, and 3, "Mommy's making a work call," and places drinks, snacks, and toys directly in front of them. Her 2-year-old daughter is treated to a favorite video.

Still, Kennedy says with a laugh, "I've learned that I just can't make long calls at home. Once, I had to call London and the conversation took 45 minutes. I had shooed the kids out of the room, and while I was on the phone, they got baby powder and completely covered themselves in it. They looked like powdered doughnuts."

When you get an unexpected work call, don't hesitate to say that you need to give your child a project and will call right back. This gives you breathing room to make sure your child is busy and understands the importance of the call. After you hang up, don't forget to praise your little one for being patient. "Sometimes we forget that kids need a pat on the back when they do something right," says Sale. "That's how they learn."

4. Smooth Shopping

Wonder why grocery stores and malls are Tantrum Central? "A store is very exciting and stimulating for a child," says Dr. Rubinowitz. "At the same time, parents tend to be saying no a fair amount, which can be frustrating, especially to a toddler." Parents may feel equally put-upon as they try to get necessary shopping done while struggling to keep a young child happy without buying junky food or toys.

Planning ahead can keep frustration at bay. In working with defiant kids, Dr. Levy has discovered the importance of practicing desirable behavior. "Preparing kids for a difficult situation is better than just talking to them about it," he says. During a trip to the supermarket, invite your child to select a sugary snack that he knows you'll veto. When he presents the forbidden item and you say, "No way," he can practice saying, "Okay, Mommy," and returning the item to the shelf. "Practice doing this again and again," Dr. Levy says. "You're taking a proactive approach to the problem, and the child is learning a new coping skill, a better way of handling frustration." On future shopping trips, when frustration mounts, Dr. Levy recommends reacting neutrally, saying, "Your behavior is telling me that you need more practice accepting it when I say no. Remember what we practiced, or we'll need to go to the car and practice again."

Once more, it helps to pour on the praise when your child is a little angel. "Say, 'I had such a wonderful time shopping with you today. Wasn't that fun?' " Dr. Rubinowitz suggests.

Whether a tantrum happens at Starbucks or at the grocery store, certain truths remain. Most important is that a meltdown is not a personal attack against you or a sign of bad parenting, says Dr. Rubinowitz: "It's probably just a child needing adult guidance to get through a normal developmental step." By providing that guidance -- teaching children that their actions have consequences and that they can handle negative emotions -- parents help kids learn to set personal limits and to soothe themselves as they grow.

Dr. Katz shares this story from his own family: "When my oldest child was 5, she threw something. I said, 'That's it -- you're going to bed.' And she cried. I said, 'It's okay, honey, you lost a privilege. Goodnight. I love you.' Then she calmed down and I heard, 'Goodnight, Daddy. I love you.' Being an effective parent means clearing the anger and focusing on solving the problem."

It also helps to keep your sense of humor, says playwright Rob Ackerman, a New York City dad whose play Tabletop ran off-Broadway this season. "Once, my daughter Elizabeth melted down in an airport store," says Ackerman. "It was one of the legendary moments my wife and I called 'Lizzie Tizzies.' This time, Elizabeth flopped to her belly and wailed. Loudly. As I tried in vain to calm her, a woman peered around the magazine rack. I expected her to glare. Instead, with a smile she asked, 'Two?'" 'Two,' I replied."

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the March 2001 issue of Child magazine

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.