The skeleton key…what behaviors open doors?


skeleton key (plural skeleton keys)

  1. A key that has parts filed away so that it will open a range of locks

When I think of a skeleton key, I think of one key that opens a variety of doors.  When it comes to your kid’s behaviors, I think about behaviors that result in a variety of options that were only made available after the behavior occurred.  The behavior “opened doors” that were previously “locked.”

“Open sesame!”

A child asks for chocolate chip cookies for snack.  The mother says, “no, you cannot have cookies for a snack.  You can either have bananas or blueberries.”

The child complains about how much he hates bananas, and the blueberries are too squishy.  This quickly turns into whining, mild tantrummy junk, and something that looks like a close cousin to a Riverdance.

The mother gasps and, as she opens the refrigerator and the pantry, says, “well, you could have these leftover strawberries, your yogurt or…well, what would you like OTHER than cookies?  You can’t have cookies!”

The child stops, pouts and grabs the yogurt from the refrigerator.  He stomps off.

What just happened?

The choices available to the kid changed or increased AFTER a series of protests.  She started with bananas and blueberries and, after the tantrum, presented the whole lot of the refrigerator and pantry.  Wow, that was nice.

The protest was the “skeleton key” in that it opened the door to choices that were not available before the protest happened.

Think about this a bit.  How many times do our kids get options after a crummy behavior they did not have before the crummy behavior.  Is your kid “opening doors” this way?

Here is another example

Your 12 year old is laying across the couch texting one of his girlfriends and your 5 year old daughter circles around him like a gnat.  The 12 year old swats her away, but the gnat is relentless.  You see what is going on and tell your daughter that her brother is busy, to “go play, while I make you dinner.”  She crosses her arms, stomps and says, “HE NEVER PLAYS WITH ME…” and starts crying.  You look at your son with those eyes that say “Please, son, help me out here.”  After a quick LOL and :), he puts down his phone and says, “What do you want to do, you little gnat?”  She smiles as she sets out the princess set.

Access to the brother was locked before she pouted and cried.  Access was granted after she cried.

Dinner is served

We have talked before about picky eaters and how behavior around the dinner table can ultimately be a skeleton key to more food choices or for less demands on what your kid needs to eat for dinner.  You’ll want to read that if you have not already: mealtime negotiations 

Isn’t this hard to avoid?

Yes.  But it is important to be aware of how your kid’s behavior opens doors that were not open before the behavior occurred.  Some “skeleton key” behaviors are desirable: calm requests for other choices, reasonable explanations for why something did not occur or cannot occur, or other behaviors that help the child successfully communicate in an appropriate way.  For example, “mom, my stomach got upset last time I had blueberries, can I have something else?”  Nice.  That request opens up a variety of “doors,” including the pantry and refrigerator.

So what do I do?

Be aware of the potential problem.  There are times you know that the choices are terrible and you are likely to get some resistance.  You know it.  All parents have been there.  

If there are options that you are OK with, give them up front…before the tantrum.  

A good example is the first story above: if you are OK with yogurt or the leftover strawberries, give those options up front.  If you are wrist deep in dinner, ask your son to help out with the little one before she starts begging and bothering him.  If you are OK with your son only eating 1 green bean then being done, serve 1 green bean.  If you will ultimately play with your son while over at a friend’s house TRYING to have a relaxing time, play up front, NOT after he bugs the heck out of you. This requires a bit of thinking on your feet and some effort up front when you might not think you have it, but you can do it.

If it does happen (and you have followed the recommendations above), leave it.  Don’t open the doors to more options.  If you are only OK with bananas or blueberries, then those are the choices.  Say, “sorry…we’ll have dinner in a bit” and move on.  If big brother is studying for the SAT, say, “your brother is busy” and ask your son to go to a place where he cannot be bothered.

Can you think of some situations where your kid used a “skeleton key” to open a door?

Don’t be shy…tell us your story on the Facebook page

“The tantrum stopped! It worked!” Not so fast…


Anything that stops a tantrum in its tracks will likely make that tantrum occur MORE in the future. 


I have had parents tell me “see, that worked!” when they do this.  Interestingly, they say this as they are paying me to be in their living room helping them with their kids.  The irony is usually not obvious.  I usually stand back and say, “we need to talk about what you mean when you say, ‘It worked’ so we can move forward on this.”

When you are thinking about strategies that work, I mean really work, you need to look at behavior over time.  If it really works, it means the behavior you are trying to stop is actually occurring less and less over time.  NOT in the moment.  

If you continue to spank your kid for the same reason…spanking is NOT working.  If you continue to send your kid to time out for the same reason, time out is NOT working.  Also, if your kid isn’t brushing his teeth more, then your sticker chart is NOT working. 

I will say, if you do stop a behavior in its tracks, you now know why the tantrum was happening.  You paid attention to her and she stopped crying? (she wanted your attention).  You turned the TV on and he stopped whining (he wanted the TV on).  You sent her to time out when she was laying on the ground in front of the bathtub and she stopped, got up and went to timeout? (chances are…she wanted to avoid the bathtub). 

Now that you know, what are you gonna do?  Think about why, and get back to me…



Your kid is in a fit…you have had enough, but some behavior guy on the internet has told you to ignore those things, so you are.  Five minutes go by, 10 minutes go by and your blood pressure is making your ears hot to the touch.  That’s enough!  Here’s where it gets ugly.  You go over to your kid (hopefully yours, or the neighbors might need to supervise you a bit more) and in a raised voice yell, “STOP CRYING!  YOU HAVE BEEN CRYING FOR 15 MINUTES, THAT’S ENOUGH!!”  

How many times has that kid turned around to you, calmed immediately and in a delicate tone said,

“You know what mommy?  You are right.  I have cried enough.  I really appreciate that.” 

Rarely, if ever.  The reality is this usually occurs not because the tantrum has changed so much as your ability to continue ignoring has thinned.  We’ve all been there and done it.  BUT WAIT…

Sometimes we need to pay attention to and respond to the duration of the behavior.  For example, you might be OK with your 4 year old whining it out in her room for a while, but after 30 minutes of screaming goes by, you might need to address that.  BUT, make sure you do so in an unemotional and redirective manner.  For example,

“Hey, it’s been 30 minutes.  Lets get it together so we can do what we need to do then we can move on.  Let me know when you are ready to move on and we will.” 

Another strategy that seems to work is to take exaggerated breaths with them.  This works not just because of the Zen moment of “taking a deep breath,” but I think more because it gives you a way to respond to the child without talking…it kinda works if you are frustrated too.  If she calms…great.  If not, back away and try again in 5 minutes. 

Don’t try to solve the problem, PLEASE.  That is not what I’m talking about.

If you can’t do this unemotionally, don’t do it.  If you can, it teaches resiliency in that you are not solving the problem by attending to their junky behavior, but that you are willing to move on without getting stuck in the abyss of common childhood tantrums.