The Temper Tantrum Heard ‘round the World: What’s a Mother to Do?

Well, this was a little embarrassing for someone. A recent article in the Washington Post described, and included a picture of, a 2-year old having a “full-on” (in the reporter’s words;  a British newspaper described it as “full-tilt”) temper tantrum while President Obama, the girl’s mother and others looked on. “Is there a behavior analyst in the (White) House?” you can imagine the President saying.

If you were the White House’s special advisor to the President on matters related to behavior analysis, what would you do? What did they do?

The old saying about when you are up to your neck in alligators, the last thing you think about is draining the swamp seems apropos here. No time for a thorough functional analysis.  In this case, somebody needed to do something. What were the options?  Seems like ignoring it would kill off the big two possibilities for its maintenance. One of those is escape from the situation (maybe, for example, she’d rather be eating ice cream or going to the National Zoo, but this merely speculation on my part). The other is attention: it is hard for anyone to completely ignore a full-on temper tantrum. But, nothing like inviting planned ignoring from the Nation’s Commander-in-Chief.

Our President does not appear to be consoling or otherwise encouraging/reinforcing this behavior. Nor did it appear that anyone else was, although some look at least mildly amused (one news report suggested that the first lady was “looking on in sympathy,” but I personally would describe her look as “mild amusement’). We behavior analysts know that appearances, the form of things, can be deceiving, but the photographic evidence suggests that things were being handled well. Well, as well as one can handle a flailing two-year-old at a White House reception.  Business appears to be proceeding as normal as could expected under the circumstances. People are engaging in conversation, although they may be a little distracted by the tempest on the carpet.

In an interview, the Mom seemed matter-of-fact about her daughter’s behavior, attributing it to “the terrible condition of being two years old.” She also noted that there were some antecedents that might have predicted such behavior, notably that the little girl had had an earlier tantrum over an outfit.  

Problem behavior in public is something that most parents dread. If you want to see a different solution to preventing such tantrums in the first place, check out this video clip. Of course this solution is after the fact, and there are ways to both have your child and peace of mind with them in public and private. Unlike the video clip suggests, there is no turning back the clock. Parents and other caregivers have to deal with temper tantrums and all other types of behavioral issues as they present themselves. How they are handled early on often is critical in determining their future likelihood. All things considered, it seems that the President’s and others handling of the tantrum here portends a future in which such instances becoming decreasingly likely. Good Momma, good Mr. President.  

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.