Q: Our 34-month-old daughter is trying to control everyone else in the family, especially us. When things don’t go her way, the result is an instantaneous and fairly demonstrative meltdown. We either ignore it or tell her to sit on the steps until she’s finished. When do kids stop trying to control other people’s behavior? Should we have a stronger response to these outbursts?
A: If the truth be known—unless you’re on track to become a saint that is—you are still trying to control other people. So am I. It’s called being manipulative, and as much as no one wants to admit it, there are times when even the most well-adjusted, responsible adults attempt to manipulate to get their way.
The only difference between adults and children is that most adults (1) have accepted that other people will cooperate sometimes, but not all the time, and (2) have learned that you attract more flies with sugar than vinegar. In other words, most adults have learned the art of social diplomacy. These agreeable folks don’t throw tantrums when they don’t get their way. They just shrug their shoulders and move on.
Not toddlers! The typical toddler has yet to accept that the world does not exist for her pleasure, and hers alone. The toddler who doesn’t get her way is simply saying, “HOW DARE YOU PEONS DENY THE ALMIGHTY ME, RULER OF THE KNOWN UNIVERSE, MY WISHES!” It takes more than 34 months for most children to accept that the “Almighty Me” and me are not one and the same. (I’ve run into a fair number of adults who obviously still cling to that fantasy.)
Making your daughter sit on the stairs when she has one of her seizures is fine and will contribute to the gradual acceptance that she isn’t the Almighty Me. If you want to hasten things along, however, then up the ante a tad. Give her two free tantrums a day. Indicate that by sticking two “tantrum tickets” (rectangles of colored construction paper) to the refrigerator. When a tantrum occurs, sit her on the steps and tell her she can get up when she’s ready to join the civilized world.
When she gets up, take her to the refrigerator and take one of the tickets down, making sure she understands that she only has one ticket—and therefore only one free tantrum—left. Do the same for the second tantrum, but this time make sure she knows that because she has no more tantrum tickets left, another tantrum will require you to confine her to her room for the rest of the day and put her to bed at least one hour earlier than usual, maybe even right after supper. You should do this even if the third tantrum occurs at ten o’clock in the morning. This will not cause permanent psychic injury to a child this age. She won’t like it, and that’s the point.
Follow through with this methodically and matter-of-factly, and I predict that she will have her tantrums pretty well under control within a couple of weeks. At that point, reduce the number of daily tantrum tickets to one. To eliminate her tantrums altogether, keep this up for at least six months, maybe as much as a year. After all, the Almighty Me is the hardest of all nuts to crack.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.