I’ve worked with many parents over the years who routinely gave in when their children acted out. One mother I met, I’ll call her Linda*, had a twelve-year-old son who often used emotional blackmail and threats of misbehavior to get his way. Linda dreaded taking him to the mall, because she knew she’d end up buying him anything he asked for in an effort to keep him from calling her names, stomping and yelling at her, and making a scene that left her feeling humiliated and powerless. In effect, her son’s behavior was holding her hostage.
So what happens if we always respond to this type of behavior by backing down? Your child learns that if he misbehaves or threatens to misbehave, that will solve his problem, because somebody’s going to give in. Make no mistake, the message you’re sending your child is that misbehavior works. When your child acts out in public, if they’re not responded to in an effective way, they develop a pattern of behavior where they learn how to blackmail you to give them their way. And their mindset is, “Give me my way or face my acting out.” That may involve yelling, screaming and tantrums if they’re younger. It may be angry faces and a disgusted tone, disrespectful remarks and even cursing when they get older. Either way, the whole game they’re playing involves using behavior to try to control outside circumstances, instead of learning how to solve the problems they face.
When kids learn this lesson, there are two outcomes. Your child discovers there’s absolutely no reason to change, no reason to mature. And every time you reward them for misbehavior, you’re making that portion of your child’s personality stronger. That’s right: you’re actually strengthening the part of them that wants to misbehave and that doesn’t want to follow social rules or be civilized. In fact, you can look at parenting in that way: our role is to teach our children the rules of how to be civilized and live in our society. And in our culture, we go to the mall, we go shopping, we treat people with respect, and we behave in an acceptable manner. When you give in to inappropriate behavior, your child grows up without the coping skills to deal with the difficult situations that life presents.
The other thing that you need to understand is that when your child uses acting out as a problem-solving skill, they are not learning how to develop other more appropriate problem solving skills. Kids will throw a tantrum when they’re frustrated or upset—that happens. But whether they’re throwing a fit because they’re frustrated, upset or overwhelmed, the same rules still apply. If you give in, you’re simply teaching your child to continue acting out in public.
A Word about Younger Kids
When children between the age of two and three throw a tantrum, there should be no consequences other than to have them sit some place until they calm down. When most younger children get tired and overwhelmed, they have a hard time controlling their emotions. It’s part of a parent’s responsibility to know their kid, know how much stimulation they can take, and when they’re tired or hungry and need to leave.
When I’m at the mall or downtown where I live, in the late afternoon I’ll see little kids around the age of three, four, or five years old crying or really shutting down. I think most parents recognize that their kids are overly tired. But the adult mind manages stimulation very differently than a child’s mind. We know how to compartmentalize everything and weigh things out. For kids, stimulation comes at them like a wave. And being in a mall is like being at the circus for a child. I think that parents have to be aware of that and be tolerant of some frustration their kids will express. Parents also need to learn how to either avoid those situations or find ways to manage them.
When your young child throws a tantrum, whether it’s because he’s tired or because he’s angry at not getting his way, the management skills are the same: You wait it out. You give a little reassurance. You don’t give in.