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The crying games

Video games, ice cream, chocolate, anything to stop the tantrums. How else can parents cope when their little lambs turn into monsters.
IN MY earliest memory I am about three years old on a shopping expedition. My mother and I are in an underground walkway when something - I can't remember what - makes me angry. Not just a bit angry, but really, REALLY angry. So angry that I first shout, then scream, then finally lie on the floor and shout and scream and flail my arms and legs around at the same time.

As I do so, I notice the look on my mother's face. It is fear: and for the first time in my life, I am suddenly aware of my own power. I am having a tantrum in a public place, and my mother will do ANYTHING to get me to calm down and release her from such a mortifyingly embarrassing situation. Two minutes and the promise of an ice cream later and I'm a little lamb once more, but now I'm a little lamb who knows she only has to pretend to be a monster to get her own way.

It's lesson number one in the pre-schooler's "Guide To Successful Tantrums", that unwritten rule book that every two and three-year-old carries around in his or her head, ready to act on unless swiftly disarmed. Disarmament comes in the shape of The Parent Who Says No: and then says "No" again, and again, and again. The parent who says "No" even when her little darling is shrieking at the supermarket checkout, or yelling on the sitting-room floor: the parent who still says "No" ten minutes later, when the neighbours are on the point of phoning social services.

But how many of us are that parent? Not Chris and Claudia Simpson of Corby in Northamptonshire, who last week confessed to one newspaper that they let two-year-old son Samuel watch video games for up to ten hours day rather than cope with his tantrums. `'It means peace for us," says Claudia. "He's only quiet when he's in front of the screen."

Video games aren't an ideal solution. Through sheer desperation the Simpsons have had to compromise - a familiar scenario for most parents. Why? Because it's so awful to see your sweet child turned into the most horrible beast on earth, so awful to then see him destroy part of your house, and even worse to have the event witnessed by strangers, friends or relatives.

"It's what you imagine they're thinking about you," says Gillian Neale, mother of five-year-old Harriet and 16-month-old Isabel. "When your child throws a complete wobbly in the street, it's never in someone else's street. Oh no: it's always in your street, 50 yards from your front door, so everyone who sees it knows who you are."

But it's the supermarket special, the no-holds-barred, full-throttle meltdown in the cereal aisle, that parents really dread. "I do anything to prevent it: I open packet after packet of food from my trolley in a desperate attempt to keep the tantrums at bay, so by the time we reach the checkout almost everything I'm buying is already opened," says Gillian.

If deflection fails, you've got three choices: either you a) give in to the child's request b) produce a bribe or c) get the hell out of there (with your child, unfortunately). "If you're going to give in," says mother- of-three, Kate Amis, "the important thing is to give in straight away. There's no point fighting for ten minutes and then giving in. One thing I've realised is that you don't hold out over something trivial: these days when we go to the newsagent's I say "yes" straightaway to the request for Wotsits - a packet of Wotsits isn't the end of the world, after all. I save the battles for things that really matter."

Bribes, option b, are a tactic that almost every mother will admit to having used at one time or another: some of us never leave home without a packet of chocolate buttons secreted somewhere on our person. It's the third option, getting the hell out, that causes the most difficulty. "I was at a posh birthday party when my then two-year-old, Phoebe, suddenly went wild because she didn't understand how to play musical chairs," says Kate Amis. "She was screaming and bawling and all these mothers were looking at me: I just turned into a ball of sweat and tried to cram her into the pushchair so we could get out. Then I realised my handbag was on the other side of the room. In the end I dashed over to get it, but I have to say I seriously considered leaving without it."

It's not just ordinary parents who end up in these sort of scrapes: psychologist Richard Woolfson, author of From Birth to Starting School (Caring Books, pounds 9.99) admits to having abandoned a trolley-full of shopping at the checkout in order to flee with a tantruming child under one arm. "Before you have children you think, tut, tut, what sort of parents can they be?" he says. "Then a few years later it's you with the screaming child, and you realise it happens to all of us."

Tantrums, says Woolfson, are all about control. They come in two types: type one is the frustration tantrum, where your child loses control because he can't work something out. This is the easier kind to deal with, because you can look out for the triggers and deflect. Type two is the killer: the "I want that" tantrum. They can sound amusing in the telling, but make no mistake: this is the frontline of responsible parenting. Let your child walk all over you once and it will happen again (and again, and again), and in no time your little lamb is everyone else's brat of the millennium. So, when it matters, just say no. It's easier to say than to do, but here's the good news: children learn from it, and most of them learn fast.