Parents’ Management of Temper Tantrums in Children on the Autism Spectrum

Kids with ASD (high functioning autism) have been known to have a tantrum or two. Think about why a youngster may have a tantrum. That's right, they work! Tantrums can get kids what they want, or they would not have them. What do kids want? Candy, attention, favorite toys, not to go to bed, to continue self-stimulating, not to take medicine, more cookies, no more broccoli, and on and on.

Kids want what they want, when they want it. There are some things you can do to prevent tantrum behavior (e.g., teach kids to wait) but that cannot help you when you are at the shops with a screaming youngster! The best solution for a tantrum is a commitment from all people who have regular contact with your youngster to ignore the tantrum and never give the youngster what he is fussing for as long as he is still having a tantrum. Here's how to do it and stay sane.

What Is A Tantrum?

A tantrum is a form of communication. It's a way for the youngster to say: "Look, moms and dads and the whole world, you'd better give me what I want!" A tantrum is a normal reaction to frustration (not getting what you want) that has grown into a behavior problem. It is normal for a youngster to express anger when disappointed. Anger is a healthy response as long as it is expressed in a socially acceptable way. 

When a youngster expresses anger, our first reaction may be amusement. It's cute when a toddler gets mad. Their face frowns up, they say cute things, and they seem so pitiful. Our second reaction, unfortunately, may be to give in to them. This is when a normal anger reaction may turn into a tantrum. The youngster learns quickly that this tool they have just discovered is like magic. It gets the youngster what he wants.

As time goes on, moms and dads get angry too and begin to punish, ignore, yell, and, eventually, to give in again. This is why many moms and dads say, "I tried ignoring, but it did not work." You cannot ignore for a while. You must always ignore, in all situations, or it will not work. The youngster must learn that you will never give in to him when he is fussing. 
What happens when we ignore, yell, or punish for a while and then give in? The youngster has learned that for a tantrum to work, it must be loud and must last for a long time! To stop a tantrum, you and all who have regular contact with your youngster will have to agree to never give in to a tantrum. This is very hard to do! If you cannot commit to this, then stop reading now and find a way to enjoy the tantrums.

Counting Procedure—

One strategy is to let the youngster know that reinforcement is currently not available. It can be used when a youngster wants something that he can have, but not by throwing a tantrum.

Mother/father: “No crying.” (Start counting as soon as the youngster takes a breath but stops as soon as the crying begins again.)

Mother/father: Repeat “No crying” (Resume counting each time the youngster stops crying.)

Eventually stops crying for a full count of 10.

Mother/father: "What do you want?"

Where a youngster has echolalia, he may begin using the number sequence as a request for the desired object. The numbers should then be counted non-verbally using your fingers instead. In some cases the counting procedure may actually escalate the tantrum because the presence of the mother/father still suggests that he can get what he wants. This can be especially true if the tantrums have worked in the past to get the youngster what he wants. Planned ignoring should then be used.

Planned Ignoring—

Planned ignoring, or tactical ignoring, is a strategy to deal with behaviors that thrive on attention. It is not to be used when the tantrum causes harm to the youngster, others, or property. To ignore the youngster harming self, others, or property would be teaching a behavior that is much worse than a tantrum. If your youngster is harming self, others, or property, ask the professionals working with you for another strategy. Here's how to implement planned ignoring for tantrums:

Consistent response from everyone—

Everyone who has regular contact with your youngster must agree to use this approach for each and every tantrum. If your youngster can understand you, when he is calm, tell your youngster that you will not pay attention to any tantrums (use words he understands) and that you will not give him what he wants as long as he is having a tantrum.

Complete ignoring of the tantrum—

Whenever and wherever a tantrum occurs, it must be completely ignored. This means no positive or negative attention. The tantrum should be treated as if it did not exist and that it will change nothing for the good or bad in your youngster's life. Do not look at your youngster (except out of the corner of your eye to assure your youngster's safety). Do not talk to your youngster, correct your youngster, yell at your youngster, reason with your youngster, comment on the tantrum, or explain your actions to your youngster. Do not touch your youngster (except to protect him from harming himself, others, or property). Step over your youngster if you have to. No hugs, spankings, pats, squeezes, etc. Do not give your youngster anything to distract him, especially the item he is fussing for.

Lavish praise to other kids for their appropriate behavior—

Do not talk to others in the room about the youngster's tantrum. Talk to other adults about the news, sports, or weather. Focus on the other kids or people in the room and what they are doing right. Also, do not ignore good behavior when it occurs at other times. When you see your youngster behaving well, sitting quietly, tell him so: "I like how you are sitting so quietly!" This will let the youngster know that you pay attention to good behavior, not bad.

If you are alone, occupy your attention with other activities—

Read a book, call a friend (this may be a good idea as long as the friend will support you in your new, tough-love stance with your youngster - but do not call anyone who will convince you to give in), listen to music, watch television, sweep the floor, anything to distract you from paying attention to your youngster's tantrum.

Positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior—

When the tantrum stops (in the beginning, this may take a long time), wait a few moments, and then praise your youngster for the next appropriate behavior. Do not discuss the tantrum and do not give your youngster the item or privilege he was fussing for until 30 minutes have passed. 
At that time it is appropriate to say: "Now ask me again for a cookie (or the item that set the tantrum off - if it is appropriate to have at that time)." Praise the youngster for appropriate asking and give the item, if appropriate. This positive reinforcement will encourage appropriate behavior.

When to Intervene in a tantrum—

If your youngster begins to hurt himself, others, or property during a tantrum, you must intervene. If your youngster is trying to hurt others, remove the others from his reach and give the others your full attention. Do not talk to your youngster while intervening. Continue to ignore the tantrum. If your youngster is hurting himself, remove any items that may harm your youngster or move your youngster to a safer place. Do not talk to your youngster and use only the amount of physical contact necessary to assure your youngster's safety. 
Make all your actions appear to be matter-of-fact. Treat the tantrum with as little attention as possible. Not unlike the way you deal with an unpleasant noise from outside over which you have no control.

If your youngster was in the middle of completing a task for you when the tantrum began, ignore the tantrum but make sure the youngster completes the task, even if it means hand-over-hand help. For example, if you asked your youngster to pick up the toys and then the tantrum began, do not allow the tantrum to get the youngster out of the chore. 
Without talking to the youngster, help him pick up the toys and put them away. When the task is finished, walk away without praising your youngster, unless the tantrum stopped. You may also wait for the tantrum to stop and then have your youngster complete the task.

Getting help in dealing with tantrums—

Talk with supportive people who understand what you are doing with your youngster. Hopefully, you have a spouse, minister, friend, family member, and/or professional to share your progress with. This will help keep you on track and will help you deal with the strange looks you will get from people in the community who do not understand what you are doing to your youngster.

Have someone else observe your ignoring to make sure you are not providing any inadvertent attention to your youngster. Stick to the planned ignoring for at least one month before thinking about changing tactics. Behaviors that have been around for a long time will take longer to extinguish. If the tantrum behavior occurs again after it has stopped, apply the planned ignoring all over again. Your youngster must get the idea that tantrums do not help them or hurt them, they just get ignored!

Tantrums as a request for attention—

Kids with ASD often communicate through their behavior. That may well be what is going on in a tantrum. You may acknowledge that you understand that the youngster is trying to tell you something but "you must use your words" or communicate in some other way.

As long as the youngster is not fussing, give praise when the youngster uses his words. Also, make sure you listen, don't ignore good communication (get up and meet the need or request if it is appropriate - or explain why it is not appropriate). Often we moms and dads get busy and put the youngster off for too long once he has asked appropriately for something. Show your youngster that appropriate communication is rewarded and honored.

A tantrum can be a request for attention. Moms and dads have a natural tendency to run to their kids when they are in distress. Unfortunately, kids can learn to get attention just by screaming. It is important that you stop reinforcing the behavior by giving attention to your youngster. Instead, give lots of positive attention during appropriate behaviors. For example, approach him when he is playing quietly and offer lots of hugs and kind words (or whatever works as positive reinforcement for the youngster).

Never give attention to the problem behavior again. Time out or ignoring will work if the problem behavior is an attempt to gain attention. If the youngster is using self-injurious or destructive behavior to gain attention, don't leave the youngster alone. Block the behavior and protect the youngster but do not say anything and do not provide any “soothing” touches.

Be aware of sensory issues that can cause tantrums—

Some tantrums are related to sensory issues. A tantrum may occur due to your youngster's hearing a noise, seeing something that they dislike or are afraid of, smelling something, etc. If you suspect this, look into the sensory issues and consult your youngster's occupational therapist for sensory integration ideas. Some kids enjoy tantrums because they lead to the mother/father holding the youngster. I know some therapists recommend holding a youngster to relieve the tantrum. Just my opinion: I think this gives too much attention and may actually reinforce the tantrum.

Some kids do things in a tantrum that cause them self-harm (e.g., banging head, hitting self, etc.) and can lead to self-injurious behavior - sometimes this is a sensory issue also. Researchers believe some kids hurt themselves to release endorphins in the body that then provides them with a sensation they enjoy. If your youngster is hurting himself, please contact a psychologist or psychiatrist or other medical professional for evaluation.

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