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I know I should stop spanking my child, but then how do I stop the tantrums?

(Washington Post illustration/Prisma Filter/iStock)
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Q: I have followed your column for a while and am mulling over the decision to stop spanking; however, after you tell the little one a stern "no," then what? A simple "no" is not effective. I am not willing to let my child have a tantrum on the floor of Target. Spanking is effective but I don't want to mentally scar him for life. What should I do after I have sternly said no?

A: I hear you. I also don’t like it when children throw tantrums in Target. How else can you control your child’s behavior?

Before I begin, there is a critical bit of information missing from this letter: the age of your child. I am assuming that, if he throws tantrums on the floor of Target, he is younger than 6. So, for the sake of brevity, I will write this for parents of young children.

It is important to first understand why young children act out. When we better grasp this, we can also understand how spanking is ineffective at best and harmful at worst.

Is it time to help this cranky 4-year-old give up his naps?

Young children misbehave as a way of showing their emotions. Because their brains are immature (unable to hold onto intentions and thoughts for long periods of time), they cannot reflect and say something like, “Listen Ralphie, yes you want the Matchbox car, but you already have about 50, so let’s chill on Mom, okay?” No, Ralphie wants the car because the car is in front of him. You say “no” to the car because you are a responsible parent who knows that you cannot possibly buy Ralphie one more thing, but that “no” doesn’t make sense to Ralphie. Again, because he doesn’t have access to his feelings through words (or cannot access them quickly), he acts out physically. You think he is being a brat and he needs to learn a lesson about screaming and being selfish, so you double down and spank. Now Ralphie is in pain, scared of you, panicked and still wants the car.

So, what do we do instead?

Let’s recognize a couple of tenets:

1. Young children are emotional and always living in the present. They care about their primary caregivers and being physically and emotionally close to them. Young children love what they like and hate what they don’t like.

2. Young children do not plan to embarrass you when they have their big emotions. Many parents will say to me, “It’s like she knows what she is doing when she throws her fit,” and I get it. These fits can feel intentional to us, especially when our anger and frustration are running high. Although the child may be conditioned to throwing tantrums to get her way, she doesn’t want to behave like this. Her brain hasn’t matured enough to premeditate a tantrum; that would mean she would understand her perspective and yours.

3. Children don’t know how to “pick another choice” when it comes to their behavior. The saying goes, “If the child knew how to behave better, he would have already,” and it’s true, especially for 4-, 3- and 2-year-old children.

4. When you add frustration to frustration, you get more frustration. This is true for all humans, especially young children.

How to keep the peace when one parenting approach doesn’t fit both kids

How do you teach a child that he will not get the toy in Target? The answer is simple and terribly hard: not giving in to his demands while also not punishing him for his big emotions. This means you need to withstand the storm of his emotions without reacting. Before you object to just standing there while your little one destroys the store, you must remember to obey the needs of the situation. There will be times you just sit there and wait because there are too many things in the cart that you need, and you cannot abort the mission. There may be a time that you pick up your sweet one and carry him out of the store, surfboard-style, leaving the cart behind. There may be a time where you just buy the darn toy (although I strongly suggest that you don’t do that too much). The point? The tantrum is a natural outcome of frustration, so why would you expect that it wouldn’t happen? Furthermore, why would you want to stop it? Frustration must come out, so let it come out. Boys especially need to let out emotions without being shut up or shut down.

This requires a tremendous amount of courage and strength from parents; courage to stay calm amid the storm, and strength to know that people are not judging you. Yes, there will be some people who roll their eyes and sigh, and maybe even make some comments. But anyone who has parented any amount of time will recognize the tantrum of a young child who has not gotten what he wants, and will send you loving vibes and a knowing smile.

Before long, the child’s brain will learn that your “no” means a real “no,” and he will begin to slow the tantrums. Time will also do its work, his brain and body will mature, and he will be able to better hold on to his emotions. I am asking you to have faith and be positive that this can and will get better, without the spanking and other punitive actions. Search online for “positive ways to keep your child’s attention in a store or shopping” and watch the ideas roll in. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Staying positive and doing fun activities will not work every time, but you will be pleasantly surprised by how much it will work.

I also suggest picking up positive parenting books from Rebecca Eanes and Laura Markham to help you along this parenting journey.

Good luck!

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