Does Your Child Scream Like Crazy in Public?

That’s called a tantrum. No, your child is not possessed.

Last Sunday, my wife and I (together with our 9-month-old son) went to a parenting seminar in Shah Alam. The seminar was about children’s mental wellbeing, a topic which doesn’t get a lot of attention from the society.

Perhaps because the topic of mental health still has a lot of taboo associated with it. But I’m glad that we are slowing overcoming it, because we need to talk about it. It is like smelling smoke in the room, but no one has the guts to say anything about it.

The seminar covered a lot of the important basics, setting up a good foundation to understand mental wellbeing. Among the topics discussed were the definition of mental illness, the different domains of a human’s wellbeing, and the differences between the different professionals in the mental health field (e.g. the difference between a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist).

During Q&A, I took the opportunity to ask a question important to me and perhaps to many other parents out there: a question about tantrum. Many parents are dealing with children with explosive attitudes, especially when the children don’t get what they wanted.

I asked one of the invited panelists, a clinical psychologist, and below was a summary of our brief conversation:

“What causes a child’s tantrum and what can we do to overcome this challenge?”, I asked him.

“A tantrum is a type of negative attention-seeking behaviour. The best thing to do is to ignore the tantrum, because if you succumb to it then the child will learn that the way to get your attention is to make noises”, he responded.

“Is it normal?”

“It is normal to get upset when you don’t get what you wanted. Even adults get upset. But you have to teach your child to find a better way of asking, and to not associate bad behaviour with getting your attention.”

My son is 9-month-old now. Thankfully, he doesn’t exhibit any behaviour that would qualify as a tantrum. But the possibility of him developing the behaviour is always there, and it is a direct reflection of my own parenting.

Like what the clinical psychologist said, tantrum is a negative attention-seeking behaviour. To put it in another way, the child wants your attention. The child needs your attention. So he will find a way to get it.

When you only give attention to him whenever he exhibits a bad behaviour, the child is making an association between doing bad behaviour and getting your attention. It is a negative association, but if that is what it takes to get your attention, the child doesn’t really care about anything else.

If or when you (I’m talking to myself too) are in such a situation, what should you do? You should ignore the child’s bad behaviours. As a substitute, you should pay as much as attention as you can to his good behaviours. The goal is to associate parental attention with good behaviours.

We want the child to learn that the way to get the attention he wants and needs is to exhibit good behaviours. When good behaviours are acknowledged and appreciated, the child would feel good about it and it is more likely that he will repeat the good behaviours in the future.

It is theoretically simple, but practically challenging. Imagine if you child threw a tantrum in a restaurant, or in a mall, or in a mosque. Perhaps many don’t have to imagine it. It is a humiliating experience, right? People are staring, perhaps even judging.

At that moment, you just want your child to quiet down. So the easiest thing to do is to simply surrender to his demands and give him what he wants. You would think that would satisfy your child. Yes, but only in the short term.

In the long term, he will learn something powerful: “In order to get my parents’ attention, I have to behave badly. So I’m going to do this again next time.” So next time, there it is again – the tantrum. There you are again – surrendering. Hence, the wheel begins to turn and it will continue to turn until you stop it.

A child has no evil intention. The child is not out to get you. He simply wants attention and he is constantly finding ways to get it. If you don’t acknowledge his presence and his value when he behaves well and you only look him in the eyes whenever he behaves badly, then who should you blame for his tantrum?

If we want the child to change, then the adult should change first.