Temper tantrums for control, referred to as “Little Nero tantrums” by educator and author Margot Sunderland, are very different from distress tantrums. During a distress tantrum, a child’s brain and body are flooded with stress chemicals, and the child experiences and shows anguish, desperation, and panic. A temper tantrum for control, on the other hand, is manipulative. Children who throw Little Nero tantrums have learned that screaming and shouting get them what they want.
A Little Nero tantrum looks different from a distress tantrum. When your child is having a tantrum for control, there are no tears and the child can tell you what he wants and argues with you when you say “no.”
If you frequently give in to these control tantrums, you may be setting up a nearly automatic rage system in your child’s brain. Children who are rewarded for control tantrums are likely to continue to use them as a technique to get what they want as they get older, and rage can then become a part of their personality.
The response to a Little Nero tantrum needs to be different from the response to a distress tantrum. To calm your distressed child, comfort and care are in order. Little Nero rages, however, need to be ignored. If you are sure your child is not distressed, let your child have her tantrum solo. Simply walk out of the room and provide no audience. Do not even try to reason with, argue with, or persuade your child during a control tantrum because in doing so, you are giving her attention for negative behavior.
When you do need to tell your child “no,” make it a clear, calm, and firm message. If your child starts shouting and screaming for a cookie, for example, tell him that you will be happy to talk to him when his voice is as quiet as your voice. Then ignore your child until he is calm and able to say “please.”
Older children may understand a conversation about how to ask for something rather than order people to do something. Conversations held outside of the tantrum time can allow you to help them think of different, appropriate, and acceptable ways of asking for what they want.
Finally, remember that understimulation—boredom—is a painful state for humans. Humans need stimulation, so your child may resort to screaming, shouting, and making demands if she is understimulated. Learn to play together as a family, and keep kids stimulated with rewarding activities and positive interactions.