Sunday, August 31, 2008

Q. My 4-year-old daughter still has very bad tantrums. If she throws a tantrum when we are on an outing, I immediately take her home. This, however, affects her older sister, who complains she did nothing wrong, but also is being punished. Is there something I can do so the older girl is not affected by her sister’s punishments? By the way, I’m typically alone, so leaving the younger child with another parent is not an option.

A. The perfect solution to any discipline problem would inconvenience no one but the perpetrator, but there is no such thing. Any effective disciplinary consequence is going to have some negative “spillover” on other people. The mere fact consequences must be enforced is going to inconvenience the enforcer, at the very least.

In other words, you’re looking for a solution that doesn’t exist. Therefore, the most helpful thing you can do for your older child is to put an end to her sister’s emotional meltdowns. Needless to say, ending her tantrums is also going to be of inestimable benefit, socially and emotionally, to your younger daughter. It’s high time she learned the meaning behind the Mick Jagger Principle: You can’t always get what you want (but if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need).

First, remove everything from her room except her bed, chest of drawers and essential clothing. Box up what you remove and put the boxes where she cannot get to them. I call this “kicking the child out of the Garden of Eden.” The purpose is to send a strong, visible message to the child that a certain misbehavior - in this case, tantrums - is no longer going to be tolerated.

Tell her you spoke with “the Doctor” about her tantrums and he said she is too old to still be screaming and crying when she doesn’t get her way. The Doctor said she cannot have her things back, or receive anything new, until the tantrums have stopped for two weeks.

For whatever reason, children often respond more successfully to a discipline method if they believe it has been prescribed by a third-party authority figure. (If the girls share a room, then have the Doctor order bedtime immediately after supper for the younger one until the tantrums have stopped for two weeks. Everything else remains the same.)

Put up a 14-block grid on the refrigerator. Every day she does not have a tantrum, draw a star in one of the blocks and tell her you’re proud of her. It’s important that a star and your matter-of-fact praise are her only rewards on a tantrum-free day.

If she throws a tantrum, at home or elsewhere, before all 14 blocks are starred, take down the grid and put up a new one, explaining that you’re only following the Doctor’s instructions. It may take three or four grids before she has success, but if my experience serves me well, she should be tantrum-free within a couple of months.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (

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