Public tantrums

What to do when your child throws a tantrum

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Amber Strocel was seven months pregnant when she took her three-year-old daughter, Hannah, to the library. “I was trying to check out some books, and Hannah got fed up,” Strocel recalls. “She started to scream, then ran away. I chased after her, pregnant belly and all. I know everyone in the library was staring at me.”

Julie Drapeau was shopping with four-year-old Hannah, Kayleigh, two, and Rodryck, seven, when Hannah asked for a “special drink.” Drapeau said no, and Hannah shouted, “I don’t like you!” and started to scream. “She has, in the past, screamed until she actually passes out, and I could see it was getting to that,” says Drapeau.

It’s not just kids named Hannah who have meltdowns. Tantrums in the privacy of your own home are bad enough, but it’s the public ones — complete with strangers’ stares and unhelpful comments — that seem to be the worst. “It’s feeling like you have a spotlight on you, and everyone is watching to see how you’ll react, that makes it hard,” says Strocel. “I need to remind myself that my anxious negative feelings are my own embarrassment and if I act on those feelings, I’m only going to make things worse. I know — I’ve yelled at Hannah in public and it doesn’t help at all.”

Drapeau adds: “If you let yourself get upset, you just end up with two angry and frustrated people — you and your child — and that doesn’t get you anywhere.”

When she gets the occasional dis-approving stare or comment, she reminds herself: “I know I’m a good parent — not perfect, but a good enough parent. And the people who are judging me don’t know my kids or the situation. So I don’t let it bother me.”

By staying calm, you’re in a better position to settle the tantrum, says Carmel Peart, the mother of three-year-old Isabelle. “I have tried to set limits and boundaries with Isabelle from day one,” she says. “Her meltdowns have recently been on the playground after preschool. She cries and runs away from me when it’s time to go home because she doesn’t want to leave.”

Peart says when this happens, she warns Isabelle: “You can walk with me to the car or I will have to pick you up, and then we can’t come back tomorrow, and that will be very sad.” That generally does the trick, she adds, and Isabelle sometimes responds with “I want to stay, but I want to come back tomorrow,” as she leaves with her mom.

Another of Peart’s strategies: avoiding stress-producing situations. “Isabelle has the rest of her life to go to the grocery store, so I generally wait until my husband is home to go shopping.”

Of course, avoiding these situations isn’t always possible, and Drapeau finds that keeping her children fed and hydrated makes them better able to cope with the stress of the shopping mall or another outing. “Getting to understand what triggers tantrums in each of my children has been huge,” she adds.

Despite our best-laid plans, though, public tantrums happen. Here are some ideas these parents have found to be helpful:

• If at all possible, get out of the situation. “This is mostly to help me because I can be calmer and think more clearly without other people staring or commenting,” says Strocel. This might mean carrying your screaming child to the car or perhaps to a washroom or nearby park.

• If you think hunger or thirst might be an issue, offer food or drink. (This might not be an option with a flailing, screaming child, but I’ve ended more than one tantrum by offering a drink of juice or favourite snack.)

• During calmer times, you may be able to offer your child some tools to calm herself down. Drapeau has taught Hannah to blow on her finger “like she’s blowing out a candle.” When a tantrum starts, Drapeau can sometimes remind Hannah of this relaxation technique by blowing on her own finger.

• A child who is overwhelmed won’t be able to listen to reason. Sometimes you just have to ride it out and be there for her. Try to focus on your child and ignore any unhelpful comments.

• Try whispering rather than yelling. Sometimes your child will quiet down to hear what you’re saying.

Drapeau was able to end Hannah’s tantrum by whispering in her ear, “Why do you want a special drink?” Hannah calmed down enough to tell her mother that she wanted to feel special — Drapeau had bought some foods the other children could eat but Hannah couldn’t have (due to allergies). Once she understood, Drapeau was able to point out items in the grocery cart that were “just for Hannah!”

Remember, too, that those strangers staring at you may not be thinking Wow, bad parent. They may be thinking — as Strocel says she does — Wow, other people’s kids do that too.

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