The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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How can I stop my 3 year old from having temper tantrums?










































(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Movie clip

Male:   Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon. But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. The man who thinks must think and act on his own. 


Dr. Kenner:      That’s from The Fountainhead. That is so true, isn’t it? You need to think and act on your own. You need to think for yourself, to make choices. Should I marry this person or not? Should I pursue this career or not? Should I speak up to my parents or remain silent for decades on end? Should I figure out how to take care of my kids better or just wing it? Should I … it goes on and on and on. Should I diet or not? Should I go to the gym or not and how do I get there when I’m so resistant? Should I leave a bad marriage? Should I try to work on making my sex life with my husband or wife better or my partner better? 


I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. Again, my show is The Rational Basis of Happiness. And right now we’re going to turn to the phones and welcome Jennifer. Jennifer, you’re having some problems with your 3-year-old?


Jennifer:          Yes I am doctor!



Dr. Kenner:      Give me an example of what’s going on and what you’ve tried.


Jennifer:          My daughter has very, very, very bad tantrums. Like if I don’t give her something that she wants, she’ll throw things at me. She’ll tell me she hates me. She doesn’t even call me Mommy, she calls me Jen. I’ve tried spanking, I’ve tried time-outs, I’ve tried taking things away from her, but everything is a struggle with her. Whether it’s getting her dressed, in the bath, even taking her to the park, she kicks and screams and I just don’t know what to do.


Dr. Kenner:      When has she been on her best behavior?


Jennifer:          When she’s doing something she enjoys, which is watching TV, or when she’s coloring.


Dr. Kenner:      Siblings?


Jennifer:          She does, but none live with us.


Dr. Kenner:      What is your situation? You’re a single parent?


Jennifer:          No, I am married. My husband has three other children who live with their mother.


Dr. Kenner:      What do you think accounts for these bad tantrums at such a young age, besides as they said the terrible twos and such.


Jennifer:          I don’t know. People were telling me maybe it’s not giving her enough attention, but if I give her a lot of attention, I think pretty much maybe she’s spoiled. Instead of if I give her a piece of candy, let’s say, and she wants another one, I won’t give it to her, but then she’ll start screaming and yelling.


Dr. Kenner:      Okay, can you ask me for a piece of candy right now? Can you be her? Her name is Jen? No, your name is Jen.


Jennifer:          Her name is Emily.


Dr. Kenner:      You be Emily and ask me for a piece of candy right now. 


Jennifer:          Mommy, can I have a piece of candy?


Dr. Kenner:      You know something? I can hear how much you want it. What type of candy would you want honey?


Jennifer:          I would like a piece of gum.


Dr. Kenner:      You would like a piece of gum? What color gum?


Jennifer:          Red, Mommy.


Dr. Kenner:      Red. Okay, you know what honey? Let’s take that piece of gum and the next time it’s candy time – I don’t know what time you would set – but after dinner tonight, let’s wrap that gum up in a piece of tissue, pretty colored paper for you, and that will be your piece for after dinner.


Jennifer:          No Mommy. I want it now.


Dr. Kenner:      I can hear how much you want it now. Honey, you have such a wonderful, strong mind. I can hear it. And it’s hard to wait. It’s hard for me to wait at times too. Let’s see, what were you doing? You’re reading a book right now?


Jennifer:          No Mommy, I’m watching TV. Mommy, I want the gum now.


Dr. Kenner:      You are such a determined kid. I love that in you, that you are very determined. And you’re learning something? You’re learning how to want something really badly and to be able to postpone it a little bit. That’s a wonderful skill for you to have honey.


Jennifer:          Jen, I want it gum now.


Dr. Kenner:      When I hear myself being called Jen, I don’t like it at all. I expect that to stop. I’m Mommy honey. If I hear Jen again, I’m going to get very upset. I prefer to be called Mommy.


Jennifer:          Mommy, I hate you, shut up.


Dr. Kenner:      I can hear that you’re very angry right now. I don’t like to be told to shut up. Right now, I’m going in the other room and I’m going to be cooking. I’m closing the door because I want my peace and quiet right now.


Jennifer:          Slam the door crying.


Dr. Kenner:      And then she’s crying?


Jennifer:          Yeah.


Dr. Kenner:      I might just let her cry. Because what is she learning right now? 


Jennifer:          That no means no.


Dr. Kenner:      That no means no. Totally. That no means no. So here’s what happens. You’ve developed some bad habits with her, and they’re not going to change overnight. Much as we as parents wish we could turn back the clock and not make some mistakes, if you ask your husband for something, what would be something very quick you’d ask your husband for, to get you something?


Jennifer:          A cup of soda.


Dr. Kenner:      And if he says, “No, I’m not going to get it for you,” and he spanks you, how would you feel in that moment?


Jennifer:          Exactly.


Dr. Kenner:      How do you feel at that moment? 


Jennifer:          I would be embarrassed and hurt.


Dr. Kenner:      If you establish some of those feelings with your daughter, if she learned that you use an uncivilized way to try to force her mind – not to have the candy or in your case the soda – then nobody likes to be spanked. Spanking always backfires. I mean, even if kids do what you tell them to do with a spanking, what they think is, “He’s mean or she’s mean. I’ll get her back or I’ll get Dad back.” Spanking doesn’t work. Time-outs. When you tell a kid to take some time and think about what you’ve done, I mean, how many kids sit there and think about, “Oh, I feel so regretful mother. I really am upset about what I did. You know, I called you Jen and I should have called you mother.” Taking things away teaches kids not to tell you what their favorite things are, so you don’t connect well with them. Those methods you use are the ones that so many parents have used with their kids. I used them with my kids until I learned better skills. Now you’re in a transition period. 


What I’m going to recommend to you is you’re going to learn some skills. I’ll tell you some of the skills and then I’ll do even better – I’ll tell you the source of these skills. Which my listeners could tell you right off the bat, because I mention them all the time. But you need to do some of the skills I used. One was when you were telling me you wanted the piece of gum, even if she’s not going to go along with this initially, this is a wonderful skill. Instead of saying no, what did I say to you?


Jennifer:          You said, “ You know what? We’ll take the piece of gum and put it in the tissue and save it for after dinner.”


Dr. Kenner:      Did you feel like I was shooting you down with a no?


Jennifer:          No, I didn’t.


Dr. Kenner:      That felt a little different, didn’t it? So I’m valuing the fact that you want a reasonable value, but at the wrong time. Instead of saying no, if it’s possible to say, “Later I do that.” “Mom, I want to stay up late tonight.” “You know honey? I know you would love to stay up late tonight. This weekend let’s have a late night. You can stay up until 8:00.” I know she’s only 3 years old. That’s one series of skills you’ll use on how to not say no. When people are confronted with a no, even your husband – “Will you get me a drink?” No. If he says, “I can get it later for you,” it sounds nicer. And you want to be able to express disapproval without attacking her character, Emily’s character. When I said, “I don’t like to be called Jen,” notice I didn’t say, “You’re mean. I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap,” which one of my babysitters when I was a kid did to me! They didn’t last very long, obviously. But you don’t want to attack the character by saying, “You’re spoiled. You’re rotten.” Don’t use labels. You want to just say, “I expect to be called Mom. I don’t like it when I’m called Jen. I will not answer to Jen anymore.” And you can initially say it with a softer voice, but if she insists, it’s okay to use strong emotion as long as it’s not attacking. As long as it’s not, “I expect to be called,” and you have sarcasm in your voice, an attacking tone, or attacking body language, it doesn’t work either.


Jennifer:          She’s probably going to feed off of that and want to attack me.


Dr. Kenner:      You can give her a choice. “You can have that piece of gum tonight after dinner or right before you go to bed – which would you prefer?” Basically you’ve just said no to her for now, but giving a person a choice gives them the feeling, especially a 3-year-old, that they’re doing it. They’re not being spanked, not being attacked, you do not want to attack your child’s mind, you want to work with it and set limits. The books are How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. That’s at my website, And that should significantly reduce the tantrums, knowing there will be a transition period where she won’t maybe immediately respond to some of these skills. But stick with them, they’re wonderful. 


Jennifer:          I’ll try.


Dr. Kenner:      Thank you so much Jen. I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. I’m a clinical psychologist on The Rational Basis of Happiness.