The Irritable Child

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: Recently, as I stood in line at an airport terminal, I observed a child probably 3 years old whining for something from his mother. Finally, the whining turned to hitting his mother in addition to whining. It was evident that he wasn’t ill, or in pain. His mother seemed oblivious to all of his actions, except for occasional attempts to push him away. As I sat in the terminal, the intensity of his whining increased to the point that it was very uncomfortable for me and probably to other passengers waiting for their flights. For approximately one hour, the mother couldn’t have said more than a few words to the child. Eventually, she bought him something from the snack machine and immediately the whining stopped and he was happy. Why do children act this way?

Let me begin by stating that not all children act that way. You describe a scenario in which there is very little true interaction between parent and child. The child is begging for attention, and he is begging for limits. Because he gets neither, he is irritable. Children who receive high levels of intimacy from parents and well-defined limits are usually well adjusted and happy. What you observed is likely learned behavior. The child learned from previous experience that he could wear his mother down and get what he wants.

There are several principles of parenting that I would like to address that will probably be helpful to someone. The first is the importance of acknowledging the presence of the child. I have seen children tugging at a parent’s clothing with such force that I feared the clothes were going to come off. And the parent, engrossed in conversation with another adult, seemed oblivious to the child. In a case such as that, reaching out and touching the child, or picking her up for a moment, would acknowledge the child’s presence, and would likely satisfy the need for attention and belonging.

I found an illustration that I use when teaching on marriage, but is applicable here. It is called “Just a Touch Will Do.”

One Sunday after church, Patrick was talking with some other men about work they planned to do on the church building. His wife Josephine came and stood beside him for awhile, but he never said anything to her. So, she went away.

After the men finished talking, Patrick went to find his wife. He found her sitting on the dock with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Josephine. “It’s just that you made me feel so left out when you were talking to those other men. I know you had important business, and I didn’t want you to stop talking to the others to talk to me, but maybe if you would have just smiled at me, or reached out and touched my hand, then I would have felt all right. It would have made me feel that you knew I was there. Then I would have known that I was included in your thoughts.”

Now a child isn’t able to articulate his or her thoughts like Josephine did, but the needs are the same nonetheless.

Another parenting principle is explaining expectations. Before a parent takes a child into a store, church, school, airport terminal, or other public building, the parent should explain his or her expectations to the child and follow through with teaching and correction if the child fails to meet those predetermined expectations. However, if the parent doesn’t have any expectations for the child, other than that the child is going to be a problem that will likely to be the outcome.

Concerning the child you saw in the airport, his whining and hitting of his mother was analogous to a rat pushing a lever to get a piece of rat candy. It is likely the child learned through experience that if kept up the whining and hitting his mother long enough she would give in. That’s exactly what happened. The moment the child got what he wanted, he appeared happy, but only for the time being. As soon as he wants something else, he will start the process over again.

Some children have learned that throwing tantrums in stores results in all kinds of rewards. Listen carefully to what I am about to say. I believe you can train your children to go into a store and not touch anything on the shelves, not throw a tantrum, and leave without things they wanted. Instead, the experience can be an enjoyable time for both parent and child. Training starts early and you should not feel obligated to buy your child whatever he or she wants.

Years ago, the Houston Police Department drew up twelve rules for raising delinquent children. Now none of us should follow these rules, but many do, and you will see obvious examples around you every day.

1. Begin with infancy to give the child everything he wants. In this way he will grow up to believe the world owes him a living.

2. When he says bad words, laugh. This will make him think he’s cute. It will also encourage him to pick up “cuter” phrases.

3. Withhold all spiritual training. Wait until he is 21 and then let him “decide for himself.”

4. Avoid using the word “wrong.” It may develop a guilt complex. This will condition him to believe later, when he is arrested for stealing a car, that society is against him and he is being persecuted.

5. Pick up everything he leaves lying around—books, shoes, and clothing. Do everything for him so he will be experienced in throwing all responsibility on others.

6. Let him read anything. Sterilize the silverware and drinking glasses, but let his mind feast on garbage.

7. Quarrel frequently with your spouse in the presence of your children. Then they will not be too shocked when you get divorced.

8. Give a child all the spending money he wants. Never let him earn his own. Why should he have things as tough as you had them?

9. Satisfy his every craving. See that every sensual desire is gratified. Denial may lead to harmful frustration.

10. Take his part against neighbors, teachers, and policemen. They are all prejudiced against your child.

11. When he gets into real trouble, apologize for yourself by saying, “I never could do anything with him.” 

12. Prepare yourself for a life of grief. You will be apt to have it.

Another thing you mentioned in your question was that the child was hitting his mother. Let me speak to all parents. No child should be allowed to strike at a parent or authority figure. Defiance against authority should immediately be confronted and consequences that match the defiance should be administered swiftly.

Corporal punishment (spanking—in case you have forgotten the term) can often be a useful tool in addressing defiance against authority. Diana Baumrind, the foremost authority on parenting, and two co-researchers, in a study published in the Psychological Bulletin, found no harmful affects from corporal punishment when administered appropriately.

Let’s suppose the parent you described in your question decides to implement some of these principles. She could begin by talking to the child about how he must behave when he goes into a building, such as the terminal. When the child tries to get her attentions, she should acknowledge his presence. She might make eye contact, reach out and touch him, or pick him up for a moment, but not give into his demands. If he continues, she should let him know that he needs to stop the behavior “now”, or she will take action immediately. To accomplish this does not require yelling, screaming, or threats. It requires action.

What might the parent expect from the child. I suspect from your description that the child’s behavior is well established, so it will not be extinguished easily. There is potential for increased whining and tantrums before a behavior change occurs. The increased whining and tantrums are referred to in behavioral terms as a “response burst.” It is analogous to a rat beating a lever that used to produce food, but now nothing comes out. But the hope is there that if he beats long enough he will receive something.

The airport terminal is probably not the best place to begin a behavior modification program. No doubt these same behaviors are being manifested at home. Begin with developing a relationship with the child. Try talking to, playing with, and reading to the child. Set limits, and hold the limits set. When the whining begins for something you do not want the child to have, tell him clearly that he cannot have it. If he turns on his whining, put him in time out for a reasonable amount of time, or tell him he can come out when he is done whining. If he defies you by hitting, spitting at you, or tearing up his room, corporal punishment is probably justified.

Raising children can be an enjoyable time if you have behavioral expectations for your children, set limits, have consequences and rewards, and always follow through with the consequences and rewards.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

Example: 9075434113