How to tame public tantrums

How to manage your child's epic meltdowns when it feels like everyone's watching (and judging) your parenting skills.
Toddler

Photo: Ekaterina Nosenko/Getty Images

The toy store can be a minefield for young families. My four-year-old daughter has learned that tantrums don’t get her what she wants — but her 21-month-old brother hasn’t grasped this yet. Last week, when I told him he couldn’t have a yellow ball he had been toting around the store, he flipped out. Face scrunched and fists balled, he blew a gasket, squirming like a slippery eel as I strapped him into the stroller. He wailed the entire 10-minute walk home, and I felt every set of eyes on me, seeing their thought bubbles — “She’s a bad mother.”

It would have been much easier to buy him the ball — but that would have been wrong, say the experts.

“Parents are afraid of a child’s anger and explosions, but the worst thing to do is give in to a tantrum,” says Judy Arnall, a Calgary parenting expert, and author of Discipline Without Distress. “If you say no — to the toy or the candy bar — you have to be consistent. Kids need to learn there are limits. Stick with ‘no’ and endure the tantrum.”

She explains that tantrums are a developmental issue, not a discipline issue. “Toddlers don’t know the difference between public and private — they have very little self-control.”

Michael Potegal, a paediatric neuropsychologist at the University of Minnesota, has studied toddler behaviour extensively and says while 12-month-olds might exhibit elements of an emotional meltdown, full-blown tantrums often begin in earnest around the 18-month mark. They’re most common between the ages of two and three. Younger children have more frequent and shorter tantrums (two to three minutes, on average), while older children have fewer but longer ones (three to five minutes, on average).

Parents will learn to notice the warning signs — tantrums are more likely to occur when children are hungry, tired or overstimulated. On outings, be prepared with snacks and distractions like toys and books.

If this happens at the grocery store, should you keep going down the aisles with a screaming, kicking kid? If the behaviour isn’t too extreme, try to ignore it, says Arnall. “Flip through a magazine at the checkout, or look at your phone.” But if your tot starts revving up, try a public time out. “Pull them to a private corner, and if that isn’t working, pick them up and carry them out of the store,” she says.

Wait until after everyone has calmed down, and the tantrum has subsided, to turn the situation into a teachable moment — don’t attempt this mid-meltdown. (When a child is out of control, he won’t hear you.)

Parents should also avoid falling into two traps, adds Potegal — what he calls the anger trap and the sadness trap. “It’s easy to lose your temper when kids are oppositional. But getting into a shouting match teaches them you get what you want by yelling louder,” he says.

The sadness trap is subtler. “We’re hard-wired to feel sympathy for kids in distress, and at the end of a tantrum they’re usually weepy — our tendency is to cuddle them. But that teaches if they fuss and carry on, they will get comforted.” He suggests telling a child mid-tantrum that when he gets a grip and stops crying, he’ll get a big hug. “This teaches him to regulate his own emotions, rather than you regulating them for him.”

The moment we got home from the toy store, the sun was shining and my son happily went to play with a ball we already owned. My blood was still boiling, but he had moved on. “Kids can go from happy to sad in the blink of an eye,” says Potegal.

A version of this article appeared in our August 2013 issue with the headline, “Public tantrums,” pp. 56.

Read more:
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Toddler frustration
Tantrum triggers

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