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Tantrums: To Control Or Not To Control?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, we're talking about something we've all seen and perhaps experienced. Here it is.


MARTIN: OK, if you are having posttraumatic stress, you are not alone. And yes, we've all cut our eyes at that mom or that kid. But what if it is your child who's crying and screaming? It could be difficult to decide how to react and how to deal with strangers who might offer up their own helpful or perhaps not-so-helpful advice. We decided to call our panel of parents to help. Caitlin Coakley Beckner is a freelance writer and a mom of one son.

She recently wrote about this, dealing with her son's tantrums, for the website xoJane. It's a provocative piece that we want to tell you about. Gayle Trotter is an attorney, blogger and mom of six and one of our regular contributors. And Yvette Young-DeCosta is a parent educator at The Parents' Place of Maryland. That's a center for families of children with special needs. She's a mom of three. Welcome to you all. Happy holidays to you all.



YOUNG-DECOSTA: To you, too.


MARTIN: So, Caitlin, your piece got a lot of traction.

BECKNER: Yes, it did.

MARTIN: And the title is - and I don't know whether you picked the title, and it kind of doesn't matter either way. But the title of the piece is "Unpopular Opinion: Sometimes My Kid Throws Tantrums in Public, and Everyone Should Just Deal With It." Tell us about why you decided to write that piece.

BECKNER: Sure. Well, you know, the argument that I made in my piece is that I'm the parent who doesn't do anything when her child has a tantrum. And by that, I mean I don't yell at him. I don't punish him. I don't spank him. I don't drag him kicking and screaming out of the store. I'll pull him aside so that he's kind of out of the line of shopper traffic, and I'll let him cry while I talk him through it. You know, I know you're mad mama said no.

And the reason for that is because at his age - and he's just shy of 2, and he's definitely going through the terrible twos phase - but at his age, tantrums are not defiant or naughty behavior. It's not something that he consciously is doing to be manipulative. And this is based on what I've read by child psychologists, behaviorists, social workers, pediatricians. A tantrum is an emotional response. He doesn't have the logic skills or the coping skills to project his emotions in a constructive way. So he gets overwhelmed, and it just kind of bursts out in this tantrum. So at this - you know, at his age, punishing him for crying isn't - I mean, for one thing, it's not going to do any good because...


BECKNER: ...He does not have the logic skills to...

BECKNER: OK. I think...

BECKNER: ...Understand why he's being punished.

MARTIN: I think you've explained that. Yeah. OK. I got you. I just want to read one paragraph from the piece. And you say, throw me all the nasty looks you want. I will not discipline my son in a way that I know is not effective just so that I can appease your desire to see him punished for being annoying. Yelling at him or dragging him from the store will just escalate the situation and cause more distress for my child, other shoppers and myself. I know there's a range of opinions about this. So, Gayle, I'll go to you. You have six children. So are you going to fess up and tell us - has anybody ever had a tantrum? I know your kids are all, like, perfect, but.

TROTTER: Oh, never. They're all perfect.

MARTIN: Yeah. I know that.

TROTTER: They're all perfect.

MARTIN: You're all perfect. Yeah, exactly.

TROTTER: No, actually I've had that experience, the exact experience she's described, numerous, numerous times with all the kids. And I would say that each time you have that experience, you become better at handling it. And I've come up with a rubric of three things that I look at for any of these tantrum situations to decide the right way to act. So I wouldn't come up with a blanket way to respond, but I'd look at the age of the child, where we are, the location and what is the cause of the tantrum.

So, for example, if you have the situation that she's in in her piece - she's in a Target. She's shopping, and the child is very young - 2 years old. So in that situation, you know a two 2-year-old is not doing it, as she said, to spite you or for manipulative purposes. But I think there's a middle ground between what she describes in her article of sitting down and letting the tantrum play out in public. I would remove the child but not drag him out of the store, not as a punishment, but just as a, this is not - just to train them. This is not acceptable behavior in a public place.

MARTIN: Yvette, I think we're glad you're here 'cause we also want to add the perspective of children with special needs, including your family. Can you talk a little bit about that dimension of it, which some people may not have considered?

YOUNG-DECOSTA: Sure, and I have experience with the same situation with my youngest. And I think that the difficulty with managing the tantrum - 'cause if your child has special needs, you have to remember that there is a developmental age they are and then there may be the age - their chronological age, and then people observing them assuming that they're a certain age. So you've got that judgment going on. And a lot of times what happens is children may get overwhelmed - be overwhelmed sensory-wise. So that can be a trigger for the tantruming - that it may be an issue where it's too bright, it's too loud. And parents really have to make a call on where they're going to take their child and what kind of strategies they're going to use.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that. But I do want to - you mentioned the word judgment. I mean, this is something that comes up, Caitlin, in your piece and certainly that you've experienced.


MARTIN: You've had people - I can't even repeat some of the things that...


TROTTER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...You said people have said to you. But the gist of it is - using NPR-appropriate language...


MARTIN: ...Is that child just needs to get their hind parts...

BECKNER: Spanked.

MARTIN: ...Spanked. Yeah.

YOUNG-DECOSTA: I think part of it is, we as parents have to develop a thick skin 'cause a lot of times as we manage our emotions and we're calm, our children feed off of that. So being able to ignore the comments and the looks, and, like, a lot of times, you may have to get down to eye level with your child and have that conversation with them depending on what's developmentally appropriate. Sometimes it requires removing. But sometimes it requires that close proximity because that's one of things that I realized with my son, that if I kind of can hold him close and talk to him, it calms him down.

MARTIN: So I get the thick skin piece. But, Caitlin, can I just ask you about this because I think there are those who would argue that your response is selfish - that a public place by definition is a shared space. And that listening to screaming, you know, crying, acting out can be very distressing to other people, including to other...


MARTIN: ...Children. And so I think some people would argue that it's kind of our obligation as kind of people who share a space to think about other people and how they are reacting to what's going on in that space. How would you respond to that?

BECKNER: Well, first of all, I agree. And I do want to clarify that I'm lucky enough to be able to take this tack in part because my son isn't - you know, does not throw the big screaming tantrums. He sits down, and he cries. And that's pretty much it. He might stomp his feet a little bit, but it's not, you know, like the clip that you played at the beginning of this segment. It doesn't sound like that. But...

MARTIN: Just to clarify, that wasn't your child.

BECKNER: No. God, no.

MARTIN: We didn't follow you to Target...

BECKNER: No. No...

MARTIN: ...And record it secretly.

BECKNER: ...That was not my child. And - but the other part of it is that - and people, obviously, they can't see this 'cause they can't see what I'm not doing. But picking him up - I know from experience with my child that, you know, picking him up, taking him out of the store is not the best way to deal with it because, you know, first, when I start trying to pick him up, then it becomes a power struggle. He fights. He gets madder. And that's when he starts, you know, really yelling.

MARTIN: But what about people who say, maybe you're timing it wrong? Maybe part of the issue is the decision to take him to Target when maybe he should be napping. And that's kind of what people - what do you say to that?

BECKNER: Well, I agree. You know, and there are - you know, the key is prevention. And I do keep all those things in mind. I only take him out for a shopping trip if he's well fed - and I keep snacks on me just in case - if it's not close to his naptime. Usually, for my son at least, the tantrums - and, you know, I know reading my piece it probably sounds like he's just a tantrum machine. But it's very few and far - they're few and far between when it happens when we're out in public because usually, with the preventative measures I'm taking, he's not to that point where he's at the verge of becoming overwhelmed at any moment. It's - you know, what we're talking about is the typical, you know, he sees a toy that he wants, and he doesn't understand why he can't have it. I told him - you know, and I told him no.

MARTIN: Let me jump in here. If you have just joined us, we are talking about how to handle the public tantrum, particularly during the holidays when you're stressed, the stores are crowded and everybody is not feeling the fact that your child is, you know, upset in the toy aisle. I'm speaking with Caitlin Coakley Beckner who wrote about this. Also with us, Yvette Young-DeCosta, who has a particular interest in children with special needs. She has one child with special needs. And Gayle Trotter who's an attorney, blogger and mom of six. Gayle, do you want to jump in here? I mean, do you...



TROTTER: I thought an important part of her piece was that she said at the beginning, she had purchased her son a Matchbox toy at the beginning of the shopping trip. And I would say this is one of these times where I love having three older sisters 'cause I had a very wise older sister who, after my first child was born, said when you go shopping with your kids, do not buy them anything. When they're young, they'll want something. You'll get them a Matchbox. It's $2. But then they'll come to expect when you're doing the business of the family, which is going out and getting provisions and supplies, that they're entitled to some kind of compensation in the way of a consumer product or a toy.

And let me tell you now, what they want at 2 is not as expensive as what they want when they're 10 and 16. And so I really stuck to that. I wasn't sure I agreed with it. But I thought it was wise advice, and I did. And I think that trains the children to learn that when they go on shopping trips, they shouldn't be expecting things for themselves.

MARTIN: Do people ever comment on your children or make mean comments to you...

TROTTER: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...When you're out with them? Like, any you can repeat here, and what was your response if you can repeat that?

TROTTER: Well, it's interesting because I do live in Washington, D.C. with the kids. And when you take a family of six children to Whole Foods with people who either don't have children or their children are grown, or whatever, whatever store it is - Safeway on McArthur Boulevard - you get a lot of dirty looks, muttered oaths under their breath and other things that I won't repeat.

MARTIN: Like what?

TROTTER: Well, just, like, how selfish, how inconvenient and other language that I could not share here...

MARTIN: Like...

TROTTER: ...Quite honestly, from, sometimes, older women who you're surprised that they wouldn't have grace. And I can tell you as a parent, when you hear a child start having a temper tantrum in a public place, the first thing that goes through my mind is, thank God that's not my child because of those negative reactions you get from people. And the response to it is just, pray for that person. Just expect that, you know, they have something going on in their life and it's really not about you and it's not about your child.

MARTIN: Is that how you help keep yourself calm...


MARTIN: ...In a situation like that?

TROTTER: Yes. That's how I cultivate inner peace.

MARTIN: OK. Yvette, I did want to bring race into it if I may.


MARTIN: You're African-American. And I just - I do wonder if you feel sometimes that you are under extra pressure for your children to behave well because there are stereotypes about African-Americans that sometimes play out in their public behavior, which we will see on message boards. And if people want to argue with me about this, I invite you to look at our comment section on any day. So, therefore - so I wanted to ask you about that.

YOUNG-DECOSTA: No, absolutely. I think that the whole concept of, you know, managing the behavior and being able to be stern and the spanking that that comes out in public. And it also comes out at family functions, that these kind of outbursts can happen at family functions. And I think a lot...

MARTIN: Where people feel that you want to employ parenting...


MARTIN: ...Strategies that you no longer embrace.

YOUNG-DECOSTA: Correct. Yes, and being able to explain to them that that's not effective. And also, it's an opportunity to educate them on what's actually happening with your child if they have a disability, if it's sensory-seeking behavior, and really being able to explain that there's a reason why they're running around and behaving this way, and that spanking them is not going to help. That's going to escalate the issue.

MARTIN: I want to ask you again how you manage your own emotions in this because I love how we're all sitting here being super calm. Yes, this is an opportunity to educate them about their behavior. Meanwhile...

YOUNG-DECOSTA: Yeah, I think...

MARTIN: ...People are saying...


MARTIN: ...You need to beat them.

YOUNG-DECOSTA: Right. Yeah, or, you know, he doesn't look retarded.

MARTIN: Oh, my God.

TROTTER: Oh, my God.

BECKNER: Oh, my God.

YOUNG-DECOSTA: So sometimes you just have to - sometimes - sometimes...

MARTIN: So how do you manage your own emotions...


MARTIN: ...In that moment?

YOUNG-DECOSTA: I think sometimes you come back and say, you know what? You know, he's an individual and just kind of sharing the positive qualities. Sometimes you just have to walk away 'cause sometimes your older relatives, they're who they are. And you kind of have to be who you are and say, you know, I love you. And we just - thank you so much for coming. And he loves that sweater. You know, we just kind of distract on - and that pie, the best. He just loves it.

So you have to kind of distract and defer. And I think sometimes it's important to know when you're going - it's a holiday season - when you're going into those family functions that you have to have a strategy. Sometimes you have to - it's a drop-by. It's a quick in and out. And then you have the exit strategy. And then you have the toys. And it just becomes - it sometimes requires some strategy because everyone is not as open and understanding.

MARTIN: Caitlin, your commentary got more than 2,000 comments, and some of them were very direct.

BECKNER: A lot of them were very aggressive, yes.

MARTIN: Aggressive, yes. Thank you. That's a very nice word. Some people, I think, called you lazy and inconsiderate. One of the critics said, quote, you are not alone in encouraging your child's behavior. There will be many women coming to your defense, unquote. Not meant in a nice way. And I was wondering if people - anybody's ever said this to your face and...

BECKNER: Oh, of course not.

MARTIN: Really? No?

BECKNER: Of course, no. No, no, no. No one - well, I mean, for one thing, I don't - you know, if I'm managing my child's behavior in a store, I'm not turning around and announcing to everyone, like, this is what I'm doing, and this is why I'm doing it. And really, like, giving them it. So no, no one has ever said anything to my face.

MARTIN: But how do you respond to these comments now that they have been made? Do you have any response? So do you care that people think that?

BECKNER: Well, I don't - the people who say that they don't - the people who simply come back and - you know, and in my article I say, you know, this is why I do it. Here are - you know, I cite a couple places where pediatricians and, you know, child development experts describe what a tantrum really is. And yet, in the comments, so many people are saying, you know, well, your child is trying to bully you into getting what he wants, and ascribing motives that - you know, it's pretty clear that they don't, you know - they haven't been around a - I guess a 2-year-old, or they don't really comprehend, like, where a 2-year-old is in their development.

People saying things like, well, you know, you just - you kneel down and you give them a warning. And then, if the behavior doesn't stop, then you carry through with the punishment. You know, that might work for an older child who, you know, can, you know, can use more logic, but not for a son my age. So...

MARTIN: Has anybody ever said anything helpful to you?

BECKNER: I mean, yeah. I mean, like, amongst my friends who I know. You know, the people that I'll take parenting advice from are people who have a similar approach to parenting as me, who have also - you know, that I know have also done their due diligence in, you know, research and, you know, have - they can back up what they're trying to say.

MARTIN: Well, share. Don't keep it to yourself. I mean, don't keep it to yourself.


MARTIN: Give us some of the...

BECKNER: Well, the - you know, the argument that, you know, in a tantrum the, you know, two things you can do is keep your cool and, you know, talk to the child. And, you know, this is one of the things that's lost when people say, you're not doing anything, they're not seeing what I am doing. First of all, I'm not giving in. So I'm not reinforcing the behavior. And second of all, I'm - you know, by repeating to him, you know, I know you're mad and empathizing with him, that is something that a lot of child psychologists will recommend to - for one thing - give him the words to use to express himself...

MARTIN: OK. OK. That sounds good.

BECKNER: ...And also...

MARTIN: We only have about 30 seconds left, so I'm going to give Gayle the final thought here since she wears the crown. She's got the biggest focus group with the six kids. So...

TROTTER: That's right. That's right.


TROTTER: Well, I can tell you that it's just when you're out there in that situation, it's very hard to make the right decisions 'cause it's very emotional and the stress cortisones are flowing in your body. And I've had that experience when I've been out with two of my kids a long time ago. And I had an older man come up to me and he said - I thought he was going to fuss at me like these other experiences. And he came up to me and he put his arm on my shoulder, and he said, you're a great mom. You have great kids. Don't sweat it.

MARTIN: I love it. I'm going to be using that. Gayle Trotter is an attorney, blogger and mom of six kids. Gayle, you're a great mom. You have great kids. Don't sweat it. Yvette Young-DeCosta is a parent educator at The Parents' Place of Maryland. That's a center for families of children with special needs. You know what? You're a great mom. You have great kids. Don't sweat it.


MARTIN: And Caitlin Coakley Beckner's a freelance writer and mom of one. She joined us from member station WCVE in Richmond. You know what, Caitlin? You're a great mom, and you have a great kid. Don't sweat it either. That's my advice for today. That's our program for today. I am Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.