Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

Yesterday we talked about tantrums being emotional distress and how to handle those types of tantrums – with empathy!

But there is another kind of tantrum. This kind:

Sometimes children tantrum not because they are necessarily emotionally overwhelmed, but because they want something, either attention or an object of some kind.

The popular advice would be to ignore the child. While I admit that ignoring a child who is throwing this type of fit isn’t likely to cause any damage, I simply don’t think it’s nice to ignore people. It’s the golden rule, so unless you want your child to ignore you, I wouldn’t do it to him.

It appears to me that the child in this video just wants some attention. As Gordon Neufeld states in the video below, if your child wants attention, why not give it to him? You might think, “Well if I give my child attention after acting like this, he’ll learn this is an acceptable way to behave in order to get attention.” Well, then a good way to avoid that is by giving the child a lot of positive attention before he gets needy of it. Sometimes we don’t realize how busy we are and how little quality interactive time we’re spending with our children. Make a point to keep your child’s cup full, and “attention tantrums” will stop.

I was shopping recently and a little girl who looked to be about 4 was being pulled by one arm through the store. She was intermittently crying and throwing her legs out from under her because she wanted to go back to the toy aisle. The mother was being very patient, which was refreshing, and trying to distract her with looking for a grandparent. Distraction is sometimes a very good tool for getting your child’s mind off a particular object. Also, stopping where you are, getting down to eye level, and saying something like “I understand you really want that toy today. I can’t get it today, but I will put it on your wish list.”

When faced with an “I want my way” tantrum, here is what I would suggest you NOT do:

1. Don’t ignore the child. Ignoring the tantrum may work if you’re sure it’s not from emotional distress, which would look something like “I see you’re upset, but you can’t have _______ (only say this once). Would you like to play __________?” If she continues to whine and fuss for the object, just ignore *that* but not her. Try to engage her in something else if you can, but if you don’t give in and give her the object, this game will grow old soon.

2. Don’t give in. Sometimes rules can be broken and sometimes it’s okay to bend, and you’ll know what you’re willing to negotiate and what you’re not, but generally if you’ve said no, you mean no, and he needs to know that you mean what you say. Consistency is important in leadership.

3. Don’t have a tantrum of your own. You know what I mean. We’ve probably all had our own adult hissy fits. Try not to blow your top so you can model what control looks like.

4. Don’t punish for wanting attention or even things. We all want attention. We all want things. That’s not bad behavior. Some coaching is definitely necessary to teach them an appropriate way to express their wants, though.

Here’s what I suggest you DO:

1. Discover the need behind the tantrum. Discern whether it’s true emotional distress or not.

2. Ignore the whining, not the child. It’s good to acknowledge and empathize, even if it’s just an “I want my way” fit, but if it’s been dragging on for 20 minutes, then continuing to talk about the object or problem may just be making it worse.

3. Offer plenty of choices to your child throughout the day so that he feels he has some control.

4. Fill up your child’s attention cup before it runs out. Spend quality time playing with, reading to, and interacting with her.


  • Wendy Bergonse Posted 31 May 2013 6:39

    That first video made me so sad, the poor chld crying out for attention and being ignored and made fun of 🙁

  • Anonymous Posted 31 May 2013 6:39

    Could you please elaborate on this point:

    2. Ignore the whining, not the child. It's good to acknowledge and empathize, even if it's just an "I want my way" fit, but if it's been dragging on for 20 minutes, then continuing to talk about the object or problem may just be making it worse.

    How can one do this?

  • Rebecca Posted 31 May 2013 6:46

    I simply mean don't continue to talk about the object wanted or her whining/crying about the object. While I do believe it is good to always empathize with upset children, talking it to death sometimes keeps the upset lasting longer than it would normally. Acknowledge, empathize, and move on. Remember, these types of tantrums aren't true emotional overwhelm. The child is just trying to get something. If the answer is no, then "I know you wanted it, but _____" and move on with the day. "Would you like to play with your blocks?" "Let's get the calm down jar." "I'm going to vacuum now, would you like to help?"

  • Cathy Congell Posted 3 June 2013 13:11

    I could use more guidance…my4yr old takes over my side of bed, and begins crawlimg under me or kicking me. To get me to move. Its bed time n we r both tired. Stories r read. Etc. its time lie down n close eyes. This is new in past xouple weeks. There does not appear to b a reason other than I want…

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