What To Do When A Child Throws A Tantrum in Public

Ms. Ridhima Sharma, M.A. Psychology, ABA Practitioner

One of the most frequently experienced and distressing dilemma faced by parents is “what to do when a child throws a tantrum in public. A very common site is a child crying, screaming on top of his voice, and flopping on the ground in a mall. Typically, the on-lookers would steal glances at the scene and pass comments like “what a bad mother… she is making her child cry..” or “ oh God! Why do these people have children when they cannot handle them”. It is extremely embarrassing and horrifying for parents. Such situations are typically faced with parents of a child with Autism very frequently. “Reasoning” with them usually does not work nor does scolding.

Rather the more you scold, louder is the screaming. So what can a parent do?

Applied Behavior Analysis(ABA) tries to deal with such socially relevant behaviors.

ABA is a branch of science that focuses on modifying behavior by changing the environmental variables that controls behavior.

Simply put, to change behavior – we have to change the environment of the individual. Now what is the environment of an individual? It encompasses all the factors that affect the individual. It can be external such as reactions of others, getting attention from others, gaining access to some tangible object, getting escape from a task or it can be internal such as stress or tension that affect the mood the person, motivation or “liking” for a task.

ABA deals with the external as well as internal environment of a person and tries to change them in order to change the behavior of the person. ABA provides strategies for modifying behavior and empirical evidences for these strategies. These strategies are simple, practical and easy-to-use. One of the central theme or principle of ABA is a behavior chain which goes something like this: Antecedent – Behavior – Consequence.

ABA emphasizes on the importance of antecedents and consequences that occur before and after a behavior. Antecedents are events that happen before a behavior. In the previous example, antecedents are all the events that precede the behavior of “engaging in a tantrum”. For example – going to a mall or any public place, approaching the aisle in which his favorite toy is usually kept, seeing his favorite toy, parents denying his request for the toy, etc.
Consequences are the events that occur after a behavior. Again in our scenario, the consequences would be what the parent does or others around the child do. For example, parents may “give in” to the child’s demands and buy his favorite toy for him or the parent might ignore the child’s tantrum. Another possible consequence is some on-looker might approach the child and try to console him, invariably giving him “attention” for his behavior.

Consequences will determine what the child “learns”. A child will “learn” that behavior and engage in that same behavior the next time he is in such similar situation. So, if the parent in the previous example “gives in” to the demands of the child and buys his the toy, you can almost bet that the next time the child in a public place and his request for some object is denied – he will throw a tantrum…

So, what is the best course of action here…”IGNORE THE TANTRUM AND DO NOT GIVE IN”. Yes, the first few times you do this, it will be horrible. Your child will cry louder and louder, you will have to tolerate the “disgusting” looks of the on-lookers, and very possibly you will be more embarrassed than you were before. But on the brighter side, you will not have to buy each and every thing your child requests every time you take him or her out. Our child will learn (and so would you) that “not giving in” is helpful and effective in the long run. The child will understand that his or her tantrums are not going to be successful and complying with you will the only option he or she has.

Thus, ABA entails how and why behaviors occur and what can be done to change these behaviors. It provides a rationale based on learning principles for behavior change strategies. Next time you are faced with such a situation, try to analyze the behavior using antecedents and consequences.

Then, evaluate the best course of action, decide what consequence is best for your child in the future, select that consequence and stick to your decision no matter how tough things get and watch ABA in effect….

P.S. Don’t forget to reward good behavior – we want that good behavior to be repeated in the future , right!


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