Temper Tantrum Management: 3 Most Common Strategies

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Explosive Child" by Ross Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you given up on fixing your child’s behavioral problems? What are the best strategies for temper tantrum management?

Dealing with tantrums can be exhausting. If you feel like you’ve done everything you can but nothing is working, you need to check out these three strategies to manage outbursts.

Below we’ll look at the pros and cons of three common strategies every parent should use to correct explosive behavior, according to The Explosive Child by Ross Greene.

Strategy #1: Demand

The first temper tantrum management strategy Greene discusses is to make demands of your child using one-way communication—you make a decision independent of your child and then expect them to obey. For example, Liz’s parents tell her to get out of bed by 8 a.m. If she fails to complete this practical challenge, they don’t give her dessert in the evening. These are both decisions Liz’s parents made on her behalf. 

Pros of “Demand”

Greene says the strategy of making demands is often crucial in the heat of the moment when your child is putting themself or others in danger. For example, grabbing your child to keep them from running into traffic and demanding they stop is not only appropriate but necessary.

(Shortform note: While a “demand” style of parenting can help with safety in specific instances or in the short term, psychological research shows continued use of this parenting style can often cause children to rebel against authority figures later on and engage in riskier behaviors, making them less safe than they would otherwise be.) 

Cons of “Demand”

While the “demand” strategy isn’t inherently good or bad, explains Greene, it often doesn’t work on explosive children in the long term. Remember, children have outbursts when they struggle to complete a practical challenge—simply demanding they complete it won’t address the real issue. However, it will often make them defensive or more frustrated if they lack the executive skills to communicate their difficulty or understand your perspective.

(Shortform note: While Greene argues a “demand” strategy of precise rules and punishments is often ineffective in the long term for dealing with explosive children, he doesn’t offer a larger critique of this parenting style. However, some parenting experts—notably, those associated with the “gentle parenting” movement, like Alfie Kohn (Unconditional Parenting)—view “demand” styles of parenting as counterproductive and even harmful for all children. According to Kohn, strict rules and punishments subconsciously teach children that their parents only love them if they behave. This makes children more likely to develop low self-esteem and become depressed as they grow older.)

Strategy #2: Delay

Another strategy for managing outbursts Greene discusses is to delay dealing with the issue. This isn’t giving up on practical challenges, but rather prioritizing what you deal with and when. For example, Liz has trouble completing two practical challenges: getting out of bed in the morning and clearing her plate after eating. Her parents decide the former is more important, so they delay dealing with the latter to avoid extra outbursts and tension in the meantime. 

Pros of “Delay”

The “delay” strategy is useful when you need to de-escalate an outburst in progress or when you just don’t have the emotional energy to address an issue. Don’t feel like this strategy means giving up—after all, your child was already failing to complete these practical challenges when you were still trying to enforce them. The delay strategy just means fewer outbursts and power struggles while you focus on bigger issues. 

(Shortform note: If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the delay strategy can also help you get a better perspective on the issues you’re facing. Often, our problems can seem much bigger in the moment than they do after only a few hours or days, so putting off a problem temporarily can allow you to come back to it once it seems more manageable.)

Cons of “Delay”

This strategy doesn’t work in the long term either—your ultimate goal is for your child to be able to overcome all their practical challenges, and delaying on its own doesn’t help with this. 

(Shortform note: Consistently delaying dealing with behavioral problems can also hamper your child’s development and well-being. Psychological research shows that lax, “permissive” parents tend to have lower-achieving children with worse impulse control. This is because, without structure or responsibilities, children never have to learn how to control themselves or manage their time.)

Strategy #3: Discuss

So far, we’ve seen two strategies that work as short-term solutions but fail to address long-term behavioral problems. To solve these long-term problems, Greene suggests a third strategy of working collaboratively with your child to determine what’s triggering their outbursts and how to fix it. You accomplish this by discussing their outbursts in an attempt to understand their perspective, communicate your own perspective, and come up with a solution. (We discuss this process in detail in Part 3.)

Pros of “Discuss”

This strategy is best for addressing your child’s behavioral issues in the long term, explains Greene. By discovering the practical challenges and missing executive skills that lead to your child’s outbursts, you can address them and prevent outbursts from happening altogether—eliminating behavioral problems and helping your child complete their practical challenges. 

Cons of “Discuss”

Greene acknowledges this strategy often doesn’t work when your child is already upset or having an outburst, as they won’t be able to communicate while their emotions are heightened.

The Psychology of Discussing Outbursts

To better understand the psychology behind the “discuss” method, we can look to the authors of The Whole Brain Child. They describe people’s brains as having two main parts: The “upstairs” brain is responsible for higher thinking and reasoning, and the “downstairs” brain is responsible for primitive and impulsive responses. Children, they explain, have stronger downstairs brains that can shut out their upstairs brains—this is what causes them to have impulsive emotional reactions like outbursts. Parents therefore have to teach children how to integrate their upstairs and downstairs brains so they work together. 

Discussing their behavioral problems allows them to do just that: Your child uses upstairs brain higher thinking to explain the downstairs brain emotional response that led to their outburst. Distinguishing between upstairs brain and downstairs brain thinking also helps explain why discussions don’t work when your child is upset—their downstairs brain is in control when their emotions are heightened, meaning they can’t perform the upstairs brain task of speaking with you until they’ve calmed down.
Temper Tantrum Management: 3 Most Common Strategies

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Explosive Child summary:

  • How to get your life back when you have a child with behavioral problems
  • Common myths about the causes of outbursts and why they really happen
  • Why prevention is key for addressing long-term behavioral issues

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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