Why the 5 Tips Lists are Misleading

When you look for a solution or ideas to help you solve behavior challenges, there are a lot of wonderful professionals whose advice is simple and concise. Often this appears as a list of what to do if...


We see a lot of this lately: 

  • 5 steps to positive parenting.
  • 5 ways to support your anxious child.
  • 5 ways to connect with your child.
  • 5 tips for effective transitions.
  • 5 tips for reducing tantrums.


When we are talking about challenging behavior – of a child, of a parent, of a teacher – we can easily fall into the trap of wanting a quick thing to try. When we are frustrated, or at our wits end, and nothing we have tried works – then grabbing ideas from a list that a professional has created is the next best step.

Or is it?

One of the most important aspects of understanding and addressing behavior challenges is to look at why the person is behaving the way they are. Behavior communicates a need, and sometimes reflects a learning history of very effectively getting that need met using that behavior. 

A toddler’s tantrum about transitioning may look the same (crying, falling to the floor, hitting others) from one day to the next. However on Monday they may be needing to be held, on Tuesday they may be avoiding naptime, on Wednesday they may want to continue with access to a favorite activity, and on Thursday they may be sick or teething. 

A savvy parent, teacher, behavior specialist will address each of these tantrums differently depending on WHY the child is struggling. If we seek a solution for ‘tantrum’ by turning to a list of tips for tantruming – we may completely mistake what it is that our child is trying to communicate and apply a ‘solution’ that was intended for a different ‘why’. This is the distinction between form (what a behavior looks like) and function (the reason a behavior is happening).


Okay, if I am at my wit’s end, nothing I know to do has worked – if I can’t look at the 5 tips lists… WHAT DO I DO?


Right – the 5 tips can be improved by becoming 5 steps to understanding the why. Those types of lists are out there too – it is up to us as parents, teachers, behavior specialists to filter out the lists that assume a why based on what a behavior LOOKS like from the lists that help us learn how to uncover the why based on a bigger picture.


Here’s an example of two different types of lists:


5 Tips to Stop a Tantrum

5 Steps to Understanding Today’s Tantrum

Sit Down with your Child

What happened right before the tantrum?

Label the emotions you see

What do you see in the environment now?

Validate the emotions

What changed from before the tantrum to now?

Offer choices

Based on the answers to those questions – what might your child want/need?

Set Boundaries

Can they have what they want/need? (This question will lead to next steps which may or may not reduce the tantrum and may offer opportunities to teach more appropriate communication)




The first list is based on several assumptions which may or may not be correct. If the child is tantruming in order to access your attention, and you engage in this list, you will have allowed tantrum behavior to succeed in accessing your attention. While it may reduce the tantrum in the short term, it will also increase the likelihood that your child will use tantrum behavior in the future to access your attention (if it is not readily available to begin with). It also assumes that you are in a moment where stopping to engage this way is possible. If you are driving, or under the pressures of needing to get several children from one place to another in a timely manner – this process delays the transition (allowing avoidance) and could add stress to you, your other children, or several other individuals. Another important assumption in the first list is that your child can process anything you are saying while in the midst of tantruming. Sometimes words are not helpful in the moment. If the brain is off-line, we have to wait before a child can process the language.


There are more assumptions buried in the first approach.  Which doesn’t mean it is a bad, wrong, or inappropriate choice – if the assumptions hold true – then use this approach! If it works, across the board – use it and don’t look back. #tantrumsolved


If it doesn’t work, or you are uncomfortable with all the assumptions embedded within it – then try the second list.  These questions can help you make choices along the way, based on the situation you are in at any given moment. Like a decision making tool – asking these questions can get you started in the direction of understanding the why. Like teaching a person to fish, rather than giving them a fish – learning the skill of how to understand the ‘why’ of a behavior is a process that can generate individualized and context specific solutions for each situation.


It isn’t a quick fix.  It takes time and practice.  And to be honest – there are way more than 5 steps in the process. We don’t always get it right the first time – and we keep trying. Because that is how we learn.  We struggle, we try, we try again. 


If you want more on learning how to understand the why – reach out. We can build a process that works for you.