One day, while I was watching TV, the phone rang. I pressed mute on the TV and talked to my friend on the phone. At one point, the TV distracted me. A character was having a considerable temper tantrum that grabbed my attention. The other characters around him seemed truly affected by the tantrum. However, with the sound off it looked pretty ridiculous to me.

I realized then that anger, when you are not directly affected by it, is pretty ridiculous. All that irrational emotion, the yelling, the stomping, the huge gestures, if you are not the angry person or the one on the receiving end of the tantrum, it looks pretty silly, especially on mute. With the character on mute, all the threat and intimidation of the anger was gone. All that was left was the red face and huge cartoonish gestures.

Unknowingly and unintentionally reinforcing tantrums is an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes tantrums are ‘rewarded’ by parents giving in to the teen’s demands. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it is easier and less embarrassing to give your daughter what she wants rather than put up with the tantrum. The demands of time and public visibility can overcome the best of parents’ good judgment. Unfortunately, this teaches her that tantrums are sometimes a means of getting her way.

Other parents unintentionally reward tantrums by having a tantrum themselves. This teaches your child that tantrums are an effective weapon against her parents. In this case, your daughter may not be able to get her way, for example stay up later, have a treat, or whatever the tantrum was initially about; but at least she can have the emotional satisfaction of knowing how to upset her parent. For a child who has just been reminded of how much power her parents have over her life, it can offer some consolation to know that she can push her parent’s buttons. Knowing how to upset someone can be a form of power.

These are easy traps to fall into. Teenagers’ tempers can be pretty intimidating, ESPECIALLY in public. And sometimes a teen is able to figure that out by her parents’ reactions. She starts to see that her parents are uncomfortable or upset or embarrassed by the tantrums.

After that, it is a game of ‘chicken.’ Who will give in first? A teen can push and push in the hopes that she will get her way and that her parents’ embarrassment will cause them to give in to her demands. If she can’t get the response that she wants, she will settle for making her parents as angry as she feels. Many parents are seduced by the mirage of ‘just this time.’ Of course, many seasoned parents know that every time you give in ‘just this time,’ you make next time that much harder, meaning that your teen will push things that much further before she even contemplates accepting a limit.[i]

Sooner or later, if you want your teen to stop having tantrums, you have to stop giving in or responding in kind. As hard as it is to imagine, parents I have worked with learn to tolerate the tantrums until their teen learns that they no longer work. This is where the magic mute button is helpful. I sometimes suggest that parents imagine that they have a ‘magic mute button.’ With this button they can ‘mute’ the tantrum. They no longer hear the words, the disrespect, the threats, the cursing, etc, so they no longer react to it. The tantrum loses power over them. They no longer are embarrassed, frustrated, upset, or trying to force their teen to stop the tantrum. The teen no longer has the power to intimidate them or upset them.

Sometimes, simply ignoring the tantrums is not enough. In those cases, what I have seen work best is some form of rewarding good behavior. This means a teen is rewarded if she has absolutely NO tantrums. This can mean a reward for either a set amount of time, such as a day with no tantrums, or a reward for managing a particularly frustrating incident, such as losing a game or not going to her restaurant, without a tantrum. It is less helpful, in my opinion, to reward stopping a tantrum that already started than to reward the absence of a tantrum, because that can teach the teen that she can manipulate the situation to have a tantrum and then get a reward anyways.

For some teens, this is still not enough, and some form of punishment is necessary. But again, this works best with the magic mute button, meaning with the parents attempting set the punishment at a time when they are not emotionally reactive. Some parents can punish harshly and over the top if they set the punishment while they are still angry. By ‘muting’ the tantrum, parents make it more likely that the punishment that they choose will be more reasonable.


[i] According to learning theory, behaviors can be reinforced by four types of basic ‘schedules.’ A fixed interval schedules is reinforcing the teen for every set amount of time if he has done the desired behavior during that time period, even once. For example, rewarding him every week if he has cleaned his room. Variable interval schedule varies the lengths of the sets of time. For example, randomly checking to see if his clothes are folded and rewarding if they are. Fixed ratio reinforces the child every set amount of times he does the desired behavior. For example, rewarding him every three times he mows the lawn. Lastly, in a variable ratio schedule, the behavior is reinforced inconsistently, varying how many times the child does the behavior before getting reinforced. Gambling is an excellent example of variable ratio of reinforcement. You never know when that lucky number comes up! Sadly, occasionally giving in to tantrums also follows this model. If you ignore or don’t give in to tantrums most of the time, and once in a while you give in  (because you are tired, not in the mood, embarrassed, feeling charitable…etc… there are plenty of reasons to fall into this trap) then you are reinforcing the tantrum by variable ratio schedule. Unfortunately, variable ratio schedule motivate the highest rate of behavior that last the longest and is very likely to persist well beyond the point where you finally decide to reinforce the behavior again. Domjan, Michael. (1993) Domjan and Burkhard’s The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 3rd Edition (pp.167-174). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.


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