How to Help Your Child During a Temper Tantrum
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How to Help Your Child During a Temper Tantrum

Tantrums are not unique to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Most children have tantrums and we have all witnessed them in public. However, when we think of children with ASD, we must acknowledge that their tantrums may be more frequent and intense than tantrums of neurotypical children.

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Behaviors that are displayed by children with ASD are characterized by an excess or deficit relative to their peers. Rigidity is an excess that may contribute to a young child with ASD having more intense or disruptive tantrums. Many children with ASD are more prone to adopt rigid routines and disruptions in those routines can lead to disruptive behavior. Deficits that may contribute to tantrums include lack of coping strategies and deficits in language skills.

How should a parent deal with a child during a tantrum? 

The first priority should always be to keep the child safe regardless of whatever behavior intervention you have going on. If you are in the home environment, you may be better able to keep them safe and prevent any injuries. That may not be the case when you are out in the community or other settings.

The second step should be to try to assess what is causing the temper tantrum. This is really important and not as simple as you think. One tantrum trigger may not be that the child simply wants access to something, but it might be that they want it a certain way.

What are the functions of behavior?

In Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy (ABA), we generally see behavior as operating or been maintained by four functions: Sensory, Escape, Attention, or Tangible.

  • Sensory – something that is internal to the child. For instance, a child may start to tantrum because they hear a vacuum or a hand dryer going off.
  • Escape – refers to engaging in a behavior to avoid completing something that was given to the child. An example would be a child starting to tantrum when they are asked to read or complete their homework.
  • Attention – refers to engaging in a behavior in order to get attention from someone. An example of this would be a child hitting their sibling as a result of their parent not paying attention to them.
  • Tangible – refers to a behavior that occurs as a result of the child wanting access to something. For instance, a child may engage in tantrum behavior because it gets them quicker access to a preferred snack. 

Historically, we often thought of each one of these functions as operating separately, meaning that the behavior was maintained by one isolated function and if we identified that function, we could address the behavior. However, recent research has shown that in some instances, behaviors may actually be maintained by more than one of these functions.

For example, a child may tantrum not only because they want an iPad (tangible), but also because they want mom (attention) sitting next to them as they are playing it. The tablet alone in this instance is not sufficient to stop the disruptive behavior.

How to respond practically to tantrums?

We have explained the reasons for a child displaying tantrum behaviors. Now let’s review potential ways to respond to tantrum behaviors, how to anticipate them, and how to make it a teaching situation for the child.

Community settings are not the place to do the teaching. Teaching should be done during ABA therapy sessions and at home. If you want a child to be ok with accepting “no” when they request a chocolate bar at the grocery store, make sure that you have practiced them accepting “no” in the home setting first.

A systematic program should be created to address the core issues at home or in a controlled environment, such as during their ABA therapy session.

  • If a child has trouble accepting denial, work on waiting for preferred things first and work towards denial. Also, work on the child accepting denial to moderately preferred things before moving on to more desirable things.
  • If the tantrum behavior is being triggered by placing demands on your child, consider starting with a smaller demand and having a powerful reward at first. If you are asking your child to complete school work for 45 minutes at a time, consider breaking it down into 15-minute increments and reinforcing them in between.
  • If your child is showing tantrum behavior as a result of sensory issues, work on systematically desensitizing them to these things. Maybe you run the vacuum for a few seconds while they are in another room and praise them for staying calm.
  • If your child is having a tantrum because they want your attention, teach them how to properly request attention. Create a time when you are available to them and give them attention during that time.

Helpful Tip: Teach skills so that when you are not available they are able to engage in independent play activities.

What are the underlying behavior issues?

Tantrum behaviors should not be considered isolated random issues. They are evidence of bigger behavior issues that need to be addressed with the child. If you are out in the community or other settings where you may not have the ability to deal with the child’s disruptive behavior, the best option may be to give in and honor whatever is going to turn the disruptive behavior off, as long as it is reasonable.

Another recommendation for parents is to anticipate and have strategies to prevent disruptive behavior. Getting kids involved in daily activities not only to teaches them skills but also gives them something to do and can prevent disruptive behaviors. For example, if you are taking your child to the grocery store, regardless of age and skills, they can certainly assist with the process.

Dealing with Your Child’s Behavior

If your child has ASD, there is a high probability that you’ve experienced one of these examples in your daily life. Tantrums may be how your child is communicating his frustration with a particular circumstance or situation. Understanding the underlying cause will not only help you navigate the disruptive behavior but encourage your child to respond more effectively.

Contact our behavior therapists for more tools and resources related to how your child can grow in his social skills.