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'90S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

What to Do When Your Child Erupts

June 15, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It happens in cars, in grocery stores, in restaurants--particularly, it seems, in restaurants.

The last time it happened to Erica Orloff, a Florida mother of two, she was in the mall with her husband and children. "Everything was fine," she said. "My son was happy as can be, riding in his stroller. Then he wanted to get out. OK, we said, but we need to hold hands. He didn't want to hold hands.

"We're getting insistent. He's shaking his head. You can see his frustration mounting. He wants free rein now to wander through the mall. It's a crowded mall. You can imagine, you're afraid of losing sight of him for even an instant."

Her husband picks him up. "He doesn't want to be carried. He kicks my husband in the stomach. I tried to put him back in the stroller, but I couldn't get him in. By this time, he's shrieking and crying."

Now Orloff picks up the 34-pound toddler. "He's completely red-faced. Now I'm carrying dead weight. He stiffened his body, tears were rolling down his face." They go home.

That's a typical tantrum. A special one happened on an airplane flight. "It was 2 1/2 hours of just constant shrieking," she said. "All of USAir knows my family."

Tantrums are a new experience for Orloff, who said her first child usually accepted the word "no." And when she didn't, all that was required was a stern glance. Her son is a challenge, she said, but unlike many parents today, she knows his outbursts are part of growing up.

Temper tantrums, an expression of anger or frustration, can range from a few whimpers to breath holding, swearing or throwing furniture around a room. They can frighten some parents--especially those who are disconnected from their own families, unfamiliar with others and have become overly dependent on experts looking for problems, said Kathy Levinson, a psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., and author of "First Aid for Tantrums" (Saturn Press, 1997).

While tantrums normally surface from ages 1 to 4 and usually subside by school age, they can also persist--even into adolescence, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Some parents might also be fueling them with unrealistic expectations or their own explosive fits of temper. Or, in some cases, children simply are born with a lower tolerance for frustration than others.

When children are out of control, parents can try to ignore the tantrum if it seems to be a manipulative bid for attention. In the case of hitting or destroying property, time out--walking the child into another room and leaving them alone for several minutes--is another option.

Levinson suggests parents also act like Boy Scouts--be prepared. "Use common sense. Is this a bad time of day? Have you done too many errands that day? Are they hungry? Do they need a nap? Are they frightened?" What's more, she said, parents need to observe children closely enough to figure out when they're going to erupt. "Once a tantrum happens, you have to let it go," she said. "You can't talk a child out of a tantrum. That's like gasoline for a car."

During long trips, in cars or planes, it's important to bring a bag of healthy snacks and drinks, books, puzzles and unfamiliar toys. They can even be wrapped up like a present to enhance the novelty. When driving, parents may need to make extra rests stops, or move family members around to different spots in the car.

Restaurants can be especially troublesome because they overstimulate children with music, noise, aromas, chatter and clatter, Levinson said. Coloring books, crayons and a cup of Cheerios are helpful, but sometimes what parents need most is a baby-sitter, she said.

It is not a normal tantrum if kids are sick or if it occurs in response to family stress. Parents do need to seek help if the tantrums occur several times a day or are so unbearable they interfere with your relationship.

Otherwise, it is important for parents not to be so afraid of the tantrum that they give in to their kids' demands just to calm them down.

"Kids need structure. They need to know those boundaries," Levinson said. "And they rely on us adults to show them the way."

*

Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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