kid throwing tantrum kid throwing tantrum Kids have incentives just like everybody else. (Photo: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock)

How do you stop temper tantrums?

A behavioral scientist weighs in on getting kids to stop throwing tantrums in public places.

Parenting is hard. At least, I assume. I'm not a parent. But if memories of my own behavior serve me well, it must be hard.

It's so hard that sometimes, you need more than family advice or new punishments. Sometimes, you need cutting edge science. That's why a mom contacted Dan Ariely, an Israeli behavioral economist who studies human decision-making at Duke University.

"My 5-year-old frequently throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way," wrote the mom.

Ah yes, tantrums. Nobody likes them. But for this mom, the problem wasn't just the tantrums: it was the public nature of the tantrums.

"When we are in public (say, on the bus or train), I often give in to him to head off the screaming and my resulting embarrassment," she continued. "After each incident, he promises to behave better, but his tantrums just seem to escalate. I think he’s being manipulative. What can I do?"

It's a good question. How does a mom stand up to her tantrum-throwing toddler? Ariely looked at the problem like, well, a scientist.

"You’ve got what sounds like a garden-variety tantrum problem," Ariely responded. "I think that your son is just being a child and trying to fulfill his goals." Fair enough.

"Since you are teaching him that when he screams, you give him what he wants, he will continue that strategy until it stops working. This kind of conditioning strongly influences children – and the rest of us to some extent," continued Ariely, an alumnus of Tel Aviv University.

Indeed, we are but specks of dust in the cosmic tornado, scattered around by fate. We respond to how others respond to us. Alas, where does that leave a manipulated mom?

"The solution is to not give in to the screaming, while also making clear that you’re far more likely to yield when your son communicates calmly," Ariely explained. "Changing the conditioning will take time and expose a lot of innocent bystanders to screaming, but in the long run it will be worth it."

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How do you stop temper tantrums?
A behavioral scientist weighs in on getting kids to stop throwing tantrums in public places.