We’ve all been there. You just have a few more things on your shopping list left to get when your child decides to have a huge tantrum right in the middle of the frozen foods aisle. It can be a stressful and embarrassing situation for any parent. In an attempt to quiet them down and get out of the store as quickly as possible, many parents offer their children candy or their phone to play with. “Just this once!” they’ll say, promising they won’t give in next time.
While most parents will admit that this isn’t an ideal behavior management strategy, we can all understand that desperate times call for desperate measures. Giving into a tantrum doesn’t hurt every once and a while, right? Unfortunately, wrong. “Every once and a while” is actually the perfect way to ensure that your child will continue that behavior again and again. Behavioral psychologists call this a variable schedule of reinforcement. This means that someone is reinforced, or rewarded, on an unpredictable schedule. A perfect grown-up example of this is a slot machine. Slot machines are so addicting because you never know when the machine is going to pay out. It could be after 2 turns, or after 200! Knowing that it happens rarely does not deter you from playing. In fact, it keeps you going even after many unsuccessful tries! When we variably reinforce a child’s behavior, we’re like their version of a slot machine. They’ll think, “Mom doesn’t always give me candy when I scream, but I know it happens sometimes. I better scream louder and louder until she does!”
Unfortunately, behaviors that have been variably reinforced can be the hardest to get rid of. When we stop rewarding a child for the behavior, they will likely start behaving even worse in a desperate attempt to get what they want. This is called an “extinction burst.” While it will past with time, it can be exhausting. Here are some tips for getting through it:
- Offer an appropriate reward ahead of time. Instead of giving them candy or your phone to stop a bad behavior, tell them they will only get that reward if they do not engage in the problem behavior. If it’s going to be a long trip, offer little rewards for every chunk of time they go without misbehaving. Make sure the behavior and reward is discussed BEFORE getting into the difficult situation or setting, and if you make a promise, follow through with it.
- Catch them being good! Many children tantrum in public because they are bored or want attention. Offer a lot of praise and attention when they are being well behaved. Make sure you tell them exactly what they are doing that you like!
- Make punishments immediate. If you feel that your child’s behavior merits punishment, make sure it is something that can be implemented immediately or very soon after the event. If they normally get to watch a movie or play a game in the car, remove this privilege. If they have already earned a fun activity in the store, take it away. Waiting to give extra chores or take away something at home may be too far removed from the event to be meaningful, especially for younger children.
- Be confident in your parenting! For every judgmental glare you get in the grocery store while your child screams, there will be lots of sympathetic caregivers who are cheering you on. Stay strong with the knowledge that not giving in means good behavior in the future!