We were in the supermarket’s parking lot. My daughter — who was two at the time — refused to get into her car seat. I tried coaxing her calmly, and then not calmly at all. Soon, it was a scene. She screamed as I wrangled her flailing body, my foot stretched out behind me to stop my shopping cart full of groceries from rolling away. People peered into my car, wondering what was going on. “We’re OK!” I lied, my face hot and head dizzy.
That’s my most vivid memory of a public toddler tantrum, but it’s certainly not my only experience. There was that one incident at the library. And that other explosion at a birthday party. As torturous it is to be a parent in that moment—one that feels like it lasts for ages—I know I am not alone. Parents in the Offspring Facebook group commiserated by sharing their own war stories.
“Epic meltdown in a toy store. 3 years old. Beanie babies flying everywhere. I was mortified.”
“My kid once threw himself on a restaurant floor screaming that he wasn’t going to eat unless it was pizza. He even threw a glass of soda on the floor. We were at a Pizza Hut.”
“My kid was 4, playing in his first soccer game. It was winter. He decided he didn’t want to play, but refused to leave the field. Instead he decided to protest by stripping buck arse naked right there while the game continued around him.”
The topic of toddler tantrums is a huge one, and we cannot overstate the importance of taking steps to prevent them from happening in the first place. Make sure they’re rested and fed. Give them a rundown of the day so they know what to expect. Let them have some choices. Consider their limits.
But there will likely still be times when public tantrums happen. What are you supposed to do right then and there? I asked a group of child behaviour experts for their best advice, and took away a few common points:
- Stay calm and know that tantrums are normal. (Your kid isn’t broken.)
- Don’t worry about what bystanders think. (This is hard. Ridiculously hard.)
- Don’t give into the thing that your kid wants. (That simply teaches them that tantrums work.)
Beyond that, there are different ways to handle the situation. Here are the experts’ specific approaches:
Pretend to ignore the behaviour
“When a tantrum happens in public, most parents panic. It’s like a slow-motion nightmare where all eyes are judgmental and suddenly on the parent. This unwanted attention often causes parents to act in ways that not only don’t solve the tantrum but ensure that the behaviour will be repeated again. For example, imagine the family is out at Target or a science museum. The child sees something yummy or shiny and wants it. When the child is told no, the tantrum ensues. Here is when many parents make a crucial mistake. They give in to the original demand or make some kind of a compromise. This teaches the child that tantrums are effective ways of getting attention and something desirable.
Instead parents should pretend to ignore the tantrum. Avert the eyes, pay attention to other children or continue shopping. If the child having the tantrum doesn’t receive the wanted toy or cookie and doesn’t receive endless attention, he or she will decide to move on. Why throw a fit if nothing good comes of it? There is one caveat. If the tantrum is happening in a restaurant or somewhere that others will be highly inconvenienced, then the parent should take the child outside and then let the tantrum continue until the child realises there is no benefit to the behaviour. The trick is that the parent must listen to and watch the child so that as soon as the child stops whining or complaining, the parent needs to re-engage the child and move on. With practice this gets easier to do and children learn quickly that tantrums in public do not elicit the desired response.”
Accept that you can’t talk your kid out of the tantrum
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of The Good News About Bad Behaviour
“When your toddler is melting down, step number one is to do whatever you need to keep your cool—while keeping everyone safe. For some people, that means leaving your grocery cart in the middle of the aisle and driving home. For others, it means checking out quickly despite your embarrassment at the screaming kid under your arm. Whatever you can do to regulate your heart rate, breathing and energy level will benefit your child. Research has shown that parents and children synchronise breathing, heart beats and stress levels. You’ll just make the tantrum worse if you get worked up also.
There’s no learning that can happen when kids have gotten to the stage of a meltdown. You can’t talk them out of a tantrum. Keep your words to a minimum. Stick to short, declarative sentences like: ‘I’m here when you calm down’ or ‘We can shop for gummy worms another day’ or even just letting your child feel seen and heard, like ‘You are SO upset. You really wanted another turn on the slide!’ Talk less, act more. You can discuss the meltdown when you’re both at home, in a calm state of mind, and not on display. You might also offer empathy, or ask: ‘Do you need a hug?’ Sometimes that breaks the tantrum’s spell.
It may feel painful to leave a much-anticipated birthday party or visit to grandma’s just because of a tantrum, but there will be another chance to try again in the future. My family didn’t go out to eat for about 18 months because my toddler kept throwing food and climbing under the table. Whenever she started misbehaving, we packed up the food to go and headed out. That year and a half seemed long, but it was a quicker path to good restaurant manners than if we had spend every meal wheedling her back into her seat or bribing her with YouTube videos.”
Consider your surroundings
Dr. Carla Naumburg, author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids, which comes out in August
“The first, and most important step, is that parents need to stay calm during their toddler’s public tantrums. This is an insanely hard thing to do as tantrums are specifically designed to trigger you into action (emphasis on the word ‘trigger’). More specifically, public tantrums are challenging because most folks worry that they’re being judged by the other adults around them. In all honesty, it’s entirely possible that you are being judged, but other people’s judgment is not your problem, so try to let that go if you can. (It will get easier with practice, I promise!)
If you’re in a place where it’s inappropriate to stay (examples: the quiet room of the public library, a movie theatre, a restaurant, etc.), then leave. Just get out of there. Yes, your plans will be disrupted, and it’s annoying, but what can I say? Toddlers are an inconvenient truth. (This happened to me during a Mother’s Day brunch one year. My then-three-year-old daughter saw an ant on the floor and completely lost it. She was inconsolable and refused to leave with my husband. I spent my Mother’s Day Brunch sitting in the car with a screaming child while my husband, one-year-old, and in-laws finished their meal. I ate left-overs on the way home. Sigh.)
However, if you’re somewhere where it’s fine (or mostly fine) for a kid to lose it (such as the pediatrician’s office or playground), then your job is to manage the situation as best you can. Can you figure out what’s going on, and if so, is it something you can address in that moment? If your child is tired after a long day, you need to do your best to shorten the errand or distract the little one with a book or video. Is the kiddo legitimately hungry? If so, and if you’re, say, in the middle of the grocery store, break open that bag of crackers or raisins and feed the kid. However, if your little one is throwing a tantrum because she wants a cookie (but isn’t necessarily hungry), don’t you dare give her a treat; you’ll be showing her that you are weak in the face of public tantrums and she will take advantage of that every chance she gets.
Now, if you’re in a place where you just can’t leave (think aeroplane, bus, train, etc.), then do whatever you have to in order to survive. Seriously. Screens, snacks, books—just do what you have to in order to get through it as painlessly as possible. My only caution is to try to notice if any of your offerings might actually be triggering more tantrums—for example, some kids get very disregulated with too much sugar or screen time, in which case, try to stick with healthier snacks or audiobooks.”
Don’t feel that you have to do something
Dr. Dave Anderson, senior director of the Child Mind Institute
“The biggest issue for most parents is that the shame that accompanies having a toddler tantrum in public pushes you to act instinctually and not in a way that is most effective. Tantrums have a function—they’re usually to escape something the child doesn’t want to do, attempt to persuade the parent to grant a tangible reward or privilege, or get attention.
We want parents to do four things. 1) Stay calm. 2) Avoid playing into the function of the behaviour (to avoid increasing the change that more tantrums will happen in the future). 3) Try to disengage from the feeling that you have to do anything by ignoring both your own shame and the toddler’s behaviour. 4) Continue to remind them what needs to be done (‘Honey, we still have to leave the store …’), offer choices, redirect, give them info about the next activity, and keep your tone neutral. And if you want to go for extra credit, either wait and praise any positive behaviours that occur the moment the child starts to calm down (‘Thank you for walking with me to the front of the store,’ ‘It’s great that you’re using more of an indoor voice,’ etc.), and only use punishment if the child becomes unsafe or starts to engage in destructive behaviour.”
Remember that tantrums don’t define your child
“It’s always important to remember two things about toddler tantrums: 1) Tantrums (public or private) are simply an expression of big feelings. When toddlers feel overloaded and out of control, they do what they know how to do—yell, cry, and flop on the ground. 2) Tantrums are just moments. When tantrums occur in public, parents feel the stares of passersby. It’s overwhelming, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, but these are just moments. Public tantrums don’t define our kids, and they certainly aren’t an indication of our parenting.
That said, there are a few things parents can do in the moment. First of all, visualise blocking out the peanut gallery every chance you get because when your toddler has a public tantrum, you’ll need to focus on your toddler and let the eye rolls and stares fade into the background. The single most important thing you can do in these moments is empathise with your toddler. I know, that sounds like the opposite of what you should do, but it’s what your toddler needs. To do this, help your toddler label his or her feelings by saying something like, ‘You feel really frustrated (or mad or sad or scared) right now—I know how that feels.’ Next, acknowledge the source of the problem (‘You missed your nap to go to this party and you feel really tired’). Finally, do a calming exercise together. Say, ‘Let’s blow up a pretend balloon together to let our mad feelings go. Mine will be red with hearts, what will yours look like? Ready? Hold your hand on my heart and we’ll breathe in REALLY big together and then out REALLY slowly together to blow up our balloons.’ In a nutshell: empathise, acknowledge, calm.
If the tantrum is fuelled by an overwhelming event (a big party or a busy store, for instance), it helps to leave the environment and find a quiet place, but don’t panic. The key to helping toddlers through tantrums is to meet their storms with your calm. If your knee-jerk reaction is to panic and talk loud and fast, your toddler will experience increased stress. If you stay calm, hold your toddler close (or simply stay close in the event of kicking or hitting), and whisper-talk calming phrases (‘You feel frustrated; I will help you feel calm ...’), your child will work through the tantrum and feel calm again.”