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Dealing with tantrums: the “prescribing the symptom” tactic

"Prescribing the symptom" is a parenting tactic that experts say works wonders when dealing with a child who is having a temper tantrum.

Are you at wits’ end over your child’s constant temper tantrums and crazy outbursts? Have you tried every possible avenue to calming your child without success?

Temper tantrums are a normal part of growing up and often strike around the age of two years old and slow down as your child gets older, usually becoming far more manageable by the time they reach their fourth birthday. Some children, however, have a hard time simmering down their temper tantrums even after age four, and experience frequent emotional meltdowns that frustrate or embarrass their parents.

While normal childhood tantrums usually last between two and 15 minutes, some tantrums can last much longer and even be violent.

We chat with Margaret Paul, best-selling author of eight parenting books, on how tantrums can be prevented and best responded to.

What is the “prescribing the symptom” tactic?

Margaret Paul recommends the “prescribing the symptom” tactic when dealing with children’s tantrums. What exactly is this tactic?

Let’s explain. Rebecca – a mother of a three-year-old boy named Kevin – consulted Margaret for advice on how to deal with her child’s constant demands and screaming. Whenever someone didn’t do what Kevin wanted, he screamed and screamed, hoping to get his way. Rebecca had tried many different things to get Kevin to stop screaming, such as time-outs, telling him to use his words, walking away and ignoring him, taking away toys, and taking away events, such as a birthday party. A couple of times she had lost it and screamed back at him.

Nothing was working to get Kevin to stop screaming. Even though screaming didn’t work for him to get his way, he kept doing it.

Childhood tantrums are really just power struggles

As Rebecca and Margaret discussed the issue in a phone session, it became apparent that Kevin and Rebecca were stuck in a power struggle, with Rebecca trying to get Kevin to stop screaming and Kevin doing everything he could to resist being controlled. Whatever tactics Rebecca was using, was not working.

Prescribing the symptom

Margaret recommended that Rebecca tried the “prescribing the symptom” method. “Rebecca, the next time Kevin screams, do what I call ‘prescribing the symptom.’

This means that you say to Kevin something like, ‘Kevin, maybe you are not screaming loud enough. Maybe if you scream louder, you will get what you want’. You need to say it in a light tone of voice, with no anger. Almost matter-of-factly.” Margaret advised. The next time Kevin screamed, Rebecca did exactly that. “Kevin looked at me like ‘are you kidding me?’ and screamed louder. So I told him that it must not be loud enough, so he screamed louder,” said Rebecca. “When I told him it still wasn’t loud enough, he looked at me like I was nuts and stopped screaming. He hasn’t screamed like that since!”

Why this method works to control tantrums

So what happened here? Kevin was screaming to not be controlled by Rebecca, as well as hoping to get his way. When she actually told him to scream, the only way he could not be controlled by her was to stop screaming! Her prescribing the symptom also pointed out to him the absurdity of screaming to get his way.

Prescribing the symptom can work for many behaviours

Here are a few things you can say to a child having a tantrum, using the “prescribing the symptom” method.

  • “Maybe if you whine even more, you will get what you want.”
  • “I don’t think your temper tantrum is quite doing it. Maybe if you kick harder and cry louder, you will get what you want. I’m sure you can do better than this.”
  • “You know, that’s a pretty good pout. But it’s not quite good enough. Maybe if you pout even more you can get what you want.”
  • “You are putting up a pretty good argument. Maybe if you argue longer and louder, you will get what you want.”

It is important parents remain calm

You need to be sure that you do this right away, before you feel angry or frustrated. You need to be able to keep it light. It is important for your child to see you calm rather than flustered. Sometimes kids act out just to feel a sense of control over their parents’ behaviour when their parents get angry and flustered. It can give children a sense of power to upset people so much bigger than them.

This method works for adults too

Fortunately or unfortunately, prescribing the symptom can work with adults too – adults who are acting like kids and going into resistance. Many people automatically resist as soon as they think someone is trying to control them and prescribing the symptom can work wonders with these resistant people. It might even work with yourself.

If you find yourself reaching for the box of cookies when you have vowed to lose weight, telling yourself that maybe eating the whole box will make you feel better and solve whatever problem or feelings you are trying to avoid with the cookies might just stop you in your tracks, as it did with Kevin!

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