If you’ve read any of my blog posts during the past few years it should come as no surprise that managing tantrums has been a common theme of my parenting life. Hattie was a champion tantrum-thrower from the age of 18 months to three years old, and when she went into retirement Joe eagerly took over. We have always followed through with consequences, and we’ve also done the obvious things like warn them that the TV is about to be turned off, etc, but it’s made no difference – Joe will lose his shit over anything, at the slightest provocation. It’s as if he decides each day that he won’t rest until he’s had at least a couple of meltdowns. It’s exhausting, and I’ve had enough of it.
Beyond the impact on Tristan and me (basically, making us grumpy nearly every day), I was also bothered by the impact of Joe’s behaviour on Hattie. Whenever it’s been her turn to choose a DVD to watch, for example, Joe would kick up such a fuss that she’ll eventually let him choose instead. She’s also spent a lot of time trying to reassure me that “Joe’s just very tired” when he’s lying on the floor, screaming about some random injustice (being asked to sit at the dinner table, for example). It’s nice that she’s tried to be a peacemaker, and I’m obviously very grateful that she doesn’t just join and scream as well, but I really don’t want my four year old daughter to grow up thinking that women should keep the peace when men act like dickheads. And there’s also been days when she’s become very upset when he’s making a big fuss about nothing – plus, she’s had to deal with grumpy parents in the house, even if the grumpiness isn’t directed at her. And – this being the massive disadvantage of having a sibling, especially if both parents aren’t always available – she’s missed out on treats when Joe has forced our hand and left us to follow through on ‘if you don’t cooperate, the outing is cancelled’ consequences. That’s a bitter pill for any four year old to swallow, regardless of how happy-go-lucky she is.
As always, when faced with parenting problems I try to research my way out of trouble. I also try to make sure I reflect on our parenting behaviour, to make sure the way we’re dealing with behaviour isn’t actually contributing to it. Let’s be honest, despite our best efforts to be consistent it’s often the case that we end up playing our part in the drama.
Here’s what my navel-gazing revealed:
- We had dropped the ball with the whole Diane Levy-endorsed ‘rapid time outs’ approach. Instead, we’d gradually reverted to the endlessly fruitless ‘spend far too long trying to convince a child to behave, and get really annoyed in the process’ approach.
- We had paid too much attention to naughtiness, and not enough attention to compliance. Joe having a tantrum sucked all of our energy, and while we were fruitlessly negotiating with him we hadn’t done enough to celebrate Hattie obediently trotting off to the table to eat her dinner. Nigel Latta talks a lot about children being obsessed with parental attention in any form – so, for Joe, being a brat was paying big dividends: he was winning the attention game.
- We were letting Joe wind us up. Even though we knew it was all just boundary-testing (a LOT of boundary-testing), we were reacting to it.
It was clear that we needed to make two big changes:
- Re-establish the ‘ask … tell … ACT’ approach when dealing with disobedience; and
- Find a way to make sure we celebrated the behaviour we wanted to see.
Nigel Latta was a big help here: he had a sticker chart that he recommended, so I decided to give it a go. You can read about it in detail in Politically Incorrect Parenting, but the main features are:
- Draw up a sticker chart, dividing the day into two-hour time slots;
- Rewarding good behaviour with a sticker at the end of each time slot;
- Noting any naughtiness on the chart (having determined beforehand what behaviour you would and wouldn’t tolerate);
- Rewarding a day of (mostly) good behaviour with some kind of little prize; and
- Rewarding a week of good, prize-winning days with a weekly child-nominated treat.
This is a simplified version of what Nigel Latta recommends, but it was complicated enough for us – so complex that I was initially somewhat skeptical about it. The layers of reward-earning sounded like it would be beyond a four year old’s comprehension, but I figured it was worth a go. So I spent an hour designing personalised reward charts:
We decided that the kids needed to earn five sticker each day in order to win the daily prize. This gave them one chance to play up – we figured that this was realistic, and, as Nigel Latta explained in his rationale for rewarding behaviour in two-hourly slots (rather than rewarding specific tasks, like brushing teeth without a fuss), this approach enabled a kid to be reminded that, although they’d lost the plot about something, they could still make good choices about behaviour for the rest of the day and earn a prize. And we decided that we would continue with time outs as our strategy for dealing with misbehaviour, and that a time out would earn a ‘frowny face’ on the chart – and that only one frowny face a day was acceptable: in other words, the kids needed to earn five (out of a possible six) stickers each day, if they wanted the daily prize.
I was amazed at the kids’ enthusiasm to this new strategy! They seem to love it. And – as per Nigel Latta’s advice – we’ve kept the daily prize very humble. I bought them a little wooden letter each (eventually they’ll collect the letters for their full names), and some stick-on jewels. The daily prize is a stick-on jewel with which to decorate their letters:
They need five daily prizes in order to earn their weekly treat, which they choose at the start of the week – this is very handy, since we can refer to it if we need to keep them on track (I’m saying ‘them’ as if both kids need the help, but it’s all Joe – unsurprisingly, Hattie is on a 100% sticker success streak, since her tantrum-throwing days are long behind her). Only requiring them to have five out of seven possible daily prizes gives them some wiggle room to have a really awful day, but so far they haven’t needed it.
I made it clear from the outset that we wouldn’t be buying toys or dressing-up costumes for the weekly treat: it was all about experiences. Joe initially suggested ‘a trip to Australia’ for his first treat, but we scaled down his ambitions somewhat, and he instead chose a trip to a cafe he particularly likes, for a ‘warm chocolate’. Hattie chose morning tea at a new favourite cupcake place, and that was our first sticker-chart related outing:
Two weeks after starting this new approach, I’m really happy to report that it has been hugely successful. Last week Joe had only three tantrums – this is the boy who has had two or three tantrums a day until recently. This week he’s only got one frowny face on his chart, and Hattie’s chart is full of stickers once again:
They both chose swimming as a treat this weekend, so Tristan took them on one pool outing this morning, and we’re all heading off for a second swim tomorrow. And as an aside, it cracks me up how much the sticker choice and placement reflects Hattie and Joe’s personalities: Hattie loves little, cute things, and is quite precise, whereas Joe is all about the princess glamour and the grand flourish.
We haven’t had a huge amount of luck with sticker charts in the past, but I think it’s working this time round because both kids are kept motivated throughout the day, and because good behaviour is being recognised on a constant basis. I think they would have been too young for this particular approach until fairly recently, but it seems to be just right for their current age and developmental stage. The promise of two-hourly stickers, daily prizes, and a weekly treat give us a lot of leverage when attempting to head off possible meltdowns. And the kids seem to have really entered into the spirit of it – Joe is 100% more compliant, which makes the whole household so much happier.
If you’re also grappling with persistent preschool misbehaviour, you might want to try this sticker chart. Anything that reduces tantrums is worth a try, right?!
TWO MONTHS LATER: Read my update about how this sticker chart system has changed our lives!
If you’ve enjoyed this post please hunt for ‘Knocked Out Jacq’ on Facebook and like the page to stay up to date with future stories!