Stopping Tantrums Before They Start

TantrumMost parents have experienced the mortifying experience of having our children throw tantrums in public. Maybe you’ve had dinner ruined, had to leave a friend’s home, or even had to go and pick up your child at school because of such behavior.

At this point, it’s usually best to quietly recite the serenity prayer.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The courage to change the things I can;

And the wisdom to know the difference

For those of us with children on the Autism Spectrum, with ADHD, or with other behavioral disorders, these tantrums can be crippling. We may hesitate before accepting an invitation, or decline some invitations altogether. When tantrums are frequent, they can wreak havoc on both our child’s and our own social lives.

It’s not easy. And there’s no silver bullet for such behavior, even if Super Nanny says there is. Sometimes good old-fashioned consequences and follow-through aren’t enough. Many children on the Autism Spectrum or with ADHD are so completely absorbed by their emotions in the moment, they’re unable to make the connection between their behavior and the consequences, no matter how severe and consistent those consequences are.

We experience this with students as well, and one thing that can help is pre-correction. Pre-correction is the practice of giving your child a heads-up that he might be encountering some unpleasantness (ie. a tantrum trigger) and telling him how you expect him to behave if that occurs.

How to pre-correct effectively:

Know the triggers:  Keep a record of how often your child has a tantrum and what triggers it. It’s also a good idea to make note of the tantrums’ severity. On a scale of 1 to 5, how bad was it? This is important because even if it feels like you’re not making progress, knowing that the tantrums are slightly less intense is a good sign that pre-correction is working. Progress is progress, no matter how small.

Be clear and specific about your expectations: If your daughter melts down at birthday parties when the host is opening presents, explain to her how she should behave. “When Caroline opens the gift we gave her for her birthday, I would like you to stay seated and quiet. This is her day and these are her gifts. You’ll have your turn when it’s your birthday.”

Rehearse/Practice:  Act out the birthday party scenario at home before the party. Make it fun. Kids love to pretend, and it gives them the tools they need to control themselves when they feel they’re losing control.

Have a safe place: If the child feels he can’t control his behavior, have someplace he can go to try and calm himself.  It could be the bathroom, the back deck, another room, wherever. Knowing he can go somewhere else to lose his temper can be a  great relief to him and may be enough to prevent the meltdown.

Most importantly, do not worry that people are judging you or your child. Life is difficult for everyone, even for parents with kids who don’t have frequent meltdowns. Know that those around you, for the most part, really do understand. We’re all in this together.


Larry O’Brien has a Masters in Special Education from Vanderbilt University. He has been teaching at Benton Hall Academy since 1998.