Ask Lindsay: Tantrums

By Lindsay Burke


Hi Lindsay,

My 4 year old is obsessed with our ipad and has a temper tantrum that goes on and on when I take it away. It is a fight every time. She’ll scream for over 45 minutes… and I end up losing it and giving it to her. This happens only with the ipad- not her other toys, for some reason- do you think the ipad is impacting her brain? Should I just not let her use the ipad at all? What do I do? Thanks.



This is a long one, today, because I really want to get into detail. So, I’ll only answer one email- hope that’s okay!


Okay, let’s get a few things straight…

The ipad is not the problem. The ipad is just something we, behaviorists, call a “preferred object….” In this case, REALLY preferred. If someone took your wallet or your cell phone, what would you do? Freak out, chase the person down the street screaming, maybe?   This is totally normal. However, her getting this upset every time is not emotionally healthy

I emphasize “emotionally healthy” because I want to move away from the idea that it’s just “bad” behavior. Yes, you may feel annoyed when she has a meltdown, but she truly feels those feelings and if that is the case for…hmmm…the rest of her life when she does not get her way- shew, things are about to get tough…

In this case, the tantrum is really about her not getting her way and her realizing, in this circumstance if she tantrums long enough, she WILL get her way. Tantruming is WORKING for her…so why would she act any differently?

So…let’s talk about how you can reduce those tantrums.

RULE #1: Set her up for success. Let her know that there are times when she’s allowed to use the ipad and times when it’s “not ipad time.” I know a lot of parents use the ipad for car time…the kids can play games to their heart’s content until it’s time to get out of the car. Or, every night before dinner…so you can have a minute to get something done. Whatever it is, make sure it’s built into the routine with a clear START and STOP time, so you can be consistent and show them that you’re not out to trick them.   Make sure you have communicated this with your child too. “I’m giving you the ipad and you can play on it until it’s time for dinner. When it’s time for dinner, it will be your job to put it away.”

THEN, give them a “3 minutes left” when it’s almost time for you to take the ipad.   Don’t worry- you don’t need to count the exact time…just as long as you give them a warning.

This is where it begins to get tricky…you’ve done these things- set the rules, did the countdown, and your child STILL tantrums? Of course they will, at first! Don’t worry- it will get easier.   So, this is what you can do:

Rule #2: Drop down to eye level with your child, let them know it’s time to put away the ipad and it’s their job to. If they don’t, you will “help their body.” Then it’s time for the cowboy stand off… give it 10 seconds and WAIT FOR THEM TO START PUTTING IT AWAY before moving on to your next task.

Rule #3: You “help” them put the ipad away. If they don’t get up and start putting the ipad away (wherever you’ve chosen that place to be), you say “Okay, it looks like you need help, so I’m going to help you.” They’ve probably started to tantrum by this time. YOU MUST FOLLOW THROUGH. Do this very matter-of-factly…no need to shame, talk, discuss, reason or get frustrated with her (though you may feel like pulling your hair out every time she screams)….but it’s important for her to realize that its HER problem… not your problem. You’re just enforcing a house rule. 

RULE #4: YOU MUST OUT ENDURE YOUR CHILD. I promise, you’ll only have to do this a handful of times before she quits tantruming. I recommend staying in the room or within eye-shot of her (so she can see you). When she calms down enough to hear you, you can always narrate “You sound frustrated…you were not ready to put the ipad away. It’s your job to calm your body down now so we can get ready for dinner.” This way she knows you are not abandoning her, but you are making her responsible for her own feelings.

Now, most parents I’ve worked with expect tantrums to last for no more than a few minutes (up to an hour, at most) before they start to panic and feel they’re “tormenting” their child. Let me give it to you straight. IF YOUR CHILD IS TATRUMING FOR OVER 1 HOUR, IT IS BECAUSE YOU TAUGHT THEM TO. Yes, that is your consequence… you have to now UNTEACH this behavior. So, buckle up!

Your children are not stupid…if tantruming has worked in the past…they have nothing to lose but to give it a go, at least in their minds. I’ve worked with 3 year olds who tantrumed for 2 hours, and 5 year olds who tantrumed for 4 hours. YOU MUST OUT ENDURE YOUR CHILD. Get ready to put in some time, but I promise you- it will not only be worth it for the ipad situation, but for ALL future conflicts, as well as it will build trust between you and your child. Yes….TRUST! They know they can count on you to do as you say. Again, you’ll have to trust me, it may be that long the first time but, in my experience, the 2nd round is half the time, and 3rd round is a quarter of the time…kids learn and adapt quickly. If you follow through- it will pay off quickly. If you go back and forth on it…you’re in for some serious battles. Stick to your plan.


There has been a substantial amount of research on this and we know a few things:

  1. Use of technology often uses the part of the brain that is reactive and consuming rather than exploring and creating. This “creating” part of the brain is how children learn. However, several neuroscientists from UCLA are currently conducting research on improving brain function of adults using videogames. So, no, the ipad is not ALL bad and we cannot remove technology from our children’s lives- it’s inevitable that they’ll be using these tools heavily in their lives. However, it’s important that the time is limited, and we’re careful about what games/activities they’re doing on there. On another note, the ipad is an amazing resource for strategy games…which have been shown to significantly impact cognitive function in children and adults!
  1. Lastly, due to the structure of ipad, tv’s, computers, etc. the light source does impact our brains. Yes, our brains, as adults, too. It tells our brain to release a hormone that tells our body to “wake up!” So, it is recommended that no one use any of these forms within 2 hours of bedtime…but especially for your kids. Low lighting and books are highly recommended before bedtime, for your whole family.

You can handle this and so much more.  Hang in there!




One thought on “Ask Lindsay: Tantrums

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