Stop the Tantrums Using Social Thinking®

Whining and crying behaviors from your child are often behaviors many parents wish to escape and stop immediately, especially when the breakdown occurs at the grocery store or in the mall. Once whining or crying occurs, we may think it’s best to fix the problem that is causing a tantrum to occur in order to make the tantrum stop. Unfortunately, anything that ‘fixes’ the problem and stops the tantrum immediately, usually leads to more tantrums in the future. The child learns that crying works and makes things better. Instead, we could focus on teaching self-calming strategies and appropriate reactions to disappointments as well as avoid rewarding future tantrums by making the situation better for the child.

In Social Thinking®, problems can be quantified on a scale from 1-10. At the top of this scale, we have big problems*, which are emergency situations. The problems that fall in the middle of this scale are little problems*. Little problems usually take a few days to fix. An example is a minor injury because the pain takes some time to go away. Lastly, glitches* are the smallest problems on the scale. Glitches are events that occur which result in frustration. Unlike big problems and even little problems, glitches should have little to no reaction and can be easily solved. Examples of glitches include losing a game, not getting what you want, or accidentally wrecking an art project. Little problems allow for stronger emotional reactions, and big problems allow for very strong emotional reactions.

When someone appropriately matches his or her reactions/feelings to the size of the problem, people will want to help solve the problems. When emotions are higher than the size of the problem, people do not want to help. Instead, they feel confused and have strange thoughts* about the reaction. New problems are often created when overreactions to glitches occur.

Apply this theory to real life interactions with your child. When your child cries because he/she did not get what he/she wanted, remind your child about the new rule. You may say, “Not getting what you want is a glitch. If you match your reaction to the size of your problem, I may want to help you feel better. However, when you cry I can’t help you.” Walk away and ignore the tantrum. Providing too much language and attention could inadvertently reinforce or reward the crying behaviors. Once the child calms down, you may reward the self-calming behaviors. You may say, “I like how you worked hard to match your reaction to the size of your problem. I would be happy to help you now. We still can’t have _____, but we could do ______ or _______ instead.”

Be consistent and proactive when establishing this new rule in your home. Pre-teach the problem scale and discuss many examples of different size problems and reactions. Discuss possible new problems that could occur when one overreacts to a glitch. Crying because you lost a game causes the other person to not want to play games with you in the future. Throwing art supplies after realizing you made a mistake on your work may result in your teacher not allowing you to use certain materials. Make sure you respond to your child the same way every time an over-reaction occurs. Consistency effectively changes a behavior pattern. You know your child best. Predict when an over-reaction may occur and prompt the appropriate reaction before a tantrum has time to occur. You may say, “Wow! You just experienced a glitch when your friend took the Lego piece you were going to use, and you stayed calm! I’m so proud of you. Would you like me to find you another great Lego piece for your building?”

The graphs below may be used as a support visual when teaching these skills or reflecting on past situations.

*Michelle Garcia Winner has coined these terms in her book, Think Social! a Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Aged Students (2005)

By Nikki Stewart, MA, BCBA

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