I ask the parent, “Does the child ever have a decent tantrum?” And the parent usually says, “No, doctor, that’s why I’m here.” So we say, “We’re going to develop with you and practice with the parent, something called a ‘tantrum game.’ We’re going to do simulations, fake tantrum situations, like pilots going through a flight simulator.” And so the parent will go to the child and say, “Okay, Billy, we’re going to play a game.”
Meanwhile, a game is an antecedent, so already, no one’s tense or punishing anything. Already, we’re in a situation that’s going to be really, really good.
I say, “We’re going to play a game, and here’s how this goes: I’m going to tell you you can’t do something, but you really can. And you can have a tantrum and you can get mad, but this time you’re not going to hit mommy, and you’re not going to go on the floor. And it’s only a game, but if you can do that, I’m going to give you two points on this little chart.”
So the mom leans over and smiles and whispers in this cute way, “Okay, Billy, you cannot watch TV tonight.” And Billy, have your tantrum, and don’t hit mommy or go on the floor.
[After the fake tantrum], the child is probably smiling a little bit and the mom says with great effusiveness, “That was fabulous! I can’t believe you did that!”
Getting the child to practice the behavior changes the brain and locks in the habit. And we’ve only done it once. So now we say to Billy, “Billy, I bet you can’t do it again. I don’t think there’s a child on the planet who can do this twice in the row.” Billy’s smiling and says, “No, I can, I can do it,” and I say, “Okay, okay, we’ll do one more.”
Now you do this again and the same thing happens. If the tantrum has many different components, you change your requirement—this time, you don’t do whatever. You practice it, maybe once or twice a day, and you do this for a while.
As you do this every few days, now there’s a real tantrum that occurs outside the game. And that tantrum is either a little or a lot better. Now, you go over there and say, “Billy, I can’t believe it. We weren’t even playing the game, and look at what you did; you got mad at your sister, but you didn’t hit anybody! Billy, that was fantastic.”
You do the game maybe a little bit more, but what happens now is that the likelihood of these tantrums outside of the game being good tantrums, really increases.
[The change] usually takes about one to three weeks. But this is just one thing. Parents come to us for children setting fires and beating up teachers—that’s the serious side. Or they come because their child won’t eat vegetables or won’t do the homework.
The basic fundamental approach is, what is going on before the behavior that you can do to change it? Can you get repeated practice trials? Can you lock it in with praise? What happens is that parents think of discipline as punishing, and in fact, that’s not the way to change behavior.