Little Tyrant

How can I assist my daughter (8 years old) to deal with life’s disappointments, that is, not getting what she wants? She has a need for instant gratification. She sees, she wants, she demands (and doesn’t give up), she becomes furious and distraught. An outing to a kids’ play turns into a nightmare excursion with sullenness, obstinacy, lost temper, tears, stomping and slamming doors, all due to “things” and other events seen on the way and requests to “have” and “go” denied…

This sounds like a child with a very intense and persistent temperament. Her emotional reactions are strong, and they last a long time. It is difficult to parent such a child without either “spoiling” them by giving in, or getting into frequent conflict with them. Often what happens to the parent is that he or she gives in SOME of the time, and this often makes the problem worse. Let me give an example from learning theory. A rat is taught to press a bar in order to get a food pellet. If the pellets stop coming, the rat may press the bar 50 times before it gives up. But if on try number 49 it gets a pellet, it will press the bar 200 times. The message the rat got from the pellet on the 49th try is “If you try long enough and hard enough, you’ll get results.” Kids work the same way. If you give in to them all the time, they will expect it. If you don’t give in to them at all, they will stop trying. If you give in to them after they browbeat you and have tantrums, you are rewarding that behavior! Sometimes arguing with the child about what she wants is also rewarding to her -even though she doesn’t always get what she wants, she gets a lot of attention and perhaps power from making you engage in the argument.

So what do you do with your child’s behavior? I’m assuming that her basic needs are met, and that you’re not the kind of parent who unfairly denies her something that would be good for her. You need to learn to make your yes mean yes, and your no mean no, CONSISTENTLY. I realize how hard this is, but unless you want a spoiled brat, it is essential. So you need to state to your child that from now on, when you say yes, it means yes, and that when you say no, it means no, and you will not discuss it any further. Plan to say yes to some requests, so that your daughter will not just get the idea you are a “big meanie.” If you can, say yes when her requests are reasonable.

Now, be prepared for her reaction when you say no. The basic thing you need to do with her reaction is not to reward it. Do NOT give in once you have said no. Even once will get the “law of partial reward” operating to make your child more persistent. Do NOT discuss it further once you have said no. If you do, you risk rewarding the tantrums by giving them attention. Instead, IGNORE your child’s behavior. Tell her ahead of time that you are going to do this, because the behavior is totally unacceptable. Then follow through. Act (and it will be acting) as if she is not bothering you at all, and just don’t talk to her once you have said no. Ignore the door slamming, the tears, the stomping and the yelling. These are all attempts to make you give in. She has to learn that your yes means yes, and your no means no, and that no type of behavior on her part is going to make you change your mind.

If she “gets in your face” when you ignore her, put her in “time out” until she is quiet. You may have to hold the door of a room she is in. If she tantrums in the car, stop the car, ignore her, and refuse to drive until she has stopped. If she tantrums in a public place, take her home immediately or put her in the car and stand outside it until she calms down. You will go through a very difficult period while your daughter learns that you mean what you say. But it will pay off in the long run, in having a child who is able to control herself. Don’t forget to praise her and tell her how pleasant it is to be with her, when you see that she is beginning to develop some self-control.

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