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It’s Happening: What To Do When Your Child Throws a Tantrum in Public

It’s as inevitable as taxes and gaining weight during the holidays. If you are a parent, one day your child will throw a tantrum in public.

Here’s the thing … it’s going to happen. And probably more than once. So that spike of fear you had reading that statement? Toss it to the side. Every parent deals with this, and we’re going to talk about how to get through the worst of it.

(Note: All of the advice offered in this post is for neurotypical children. If you’re the parent of a neurodiverse child — one who has autism, is on the spectrum, has ADHD, or has other developmental differences — these tips may not be effective or work at all. Check out the resources at Autism Speaks or the CDC for advice that may help you more.)

What a Tantrum Is & What It Isn’t (Always)

A tantrum is when a child exhibits an uncontrolled burst of anger and frustration. That’s a pretty broad definition that encompasses a lot of different situations. 

Here’s something really important to keep in mind: Tantrums don’t always involve manipulation. 

Especially when kids are under the age of 2, one of the most effective ways they can express pain, hunger, tiredness, overstimulation, or sickness is to get angry and cry. They aren’t trying to humiliate you — they can’t even comprehend the concept of embarrassment yet!

If your little one can’t speak yet, there’s a good chance their environment is to blame for their tantrum. Take a deep breath and go through a checklist of reasons why your child is melting down in the middle of the grocery store. A snack or a moment in your arms might fix the problem.

That goes for kids ages 2 and up, too. They still aren’t the best at communicating what’s going on inside their minds and bodies. See if you can find out what’s making them upset, but don’t push them too hard for an answer while they’re mad. That could make things worse. Instead, plan on talking them through what the problem was after they’ve settled down.

However, older toddlers and preschoolers are smart enough to throw a tantrum in order to get their way. It’s the power struggle of independence that most every child goes through. 

Tantrum Gameplan

Getting through a tantrum with a preschooler takes some strategy on your part as a parent, so here are some tips to get through the fit itself AND set yourself up for success when it comes to modifying their future behavior.

  • Plan ahead. If you know something is a tantrum trigger for your child — walking by the toy aisle in a store, not letting them stand up in a shopping cart, or telling them they can’t put something in their mouth at the park — do your best to plan ahead and either avoid or compensate. Also, constantly remind them what you will be doing and narrate along the way. If they know what’s going on and what’s coming next, it can help defuse the uncertainty and anxiety they might feel about an unpredictable situation.
    • If tantrums seem to always occur during transitions, set a timer or give your child a five-minute warning. It makes the change that’s coming less of a surprise and gives them time to adjust. 
  • Give them some control. Especially for toddlers and preschoolers, letting them feel in charge of things in their life is crucial. Find ways for them to contribute and make decisions as often as possible throughout the day. The more they aren’t being told “no” or feel out of control, the less likely they’ll be to throw a fit about something while you’re at the store.
  • Stay calm. THIS IS SO MUCH EASIER TO SAY THAN TO DO. Once the screaming starts, it’s incredibly hard to keep your cool. However, getting angry, tense, or snappy with your child will 100% not help and will probably make things worse.
  • Logic won’t work here. Resist the temptation to argue or reason with your child when they’re mid-tantrum. Preschoolers aren’t very reasonable when they’re perfectly content, let alone when they’re spitting mad. 
  • Never shame them. Public shaming — humiliating, threatening, punishing, or yelling — will do nothing but harm to your child.
  • Wait them out. The average tantrum is three minutes long. They may feel like the longest three minutes of your life, but you can outlast it. Once they’ve stopped crying, you can start to ask them what the problem is.
  • Tell them what’s going to happen next. If the tantrum is over something you can fix (like being hungry or uncomfortable), then address the issue. If it’s not something you can compromise on, explain to them calmly why and how the rest of the trip will go. 
  • For example: “We talked about how we weren’t going to buy a toy today. But, if you can stay strong for five more minutes as we check out, we’ll get home as soon as we can so you can go play with your own toys.”
  • Don’t give them what they want. If the tantrum is over a child not getting their way, the worst thing you can do as a parent is give in. This sets a dangerous precedent. In their minds, they now think they can get what they want if they scream loud enough.
  • Pick your battles. I know we JUST talked about not giving in to a child’s demands, but don’t die on every mountain, especially if they’re just mole hills. If your child asks for five more minutes of television time, there’s no need to instigate a tantrum by telling them no. Now, if they want five more minutes after that … and five more minutes after that …
    • Make a big deal about good behavior. When kids get rewarded for requesting things nicely, expressing their emotions calmly, and making good decisions, it makes tantrum throwing a less-effective behavior for them. Over time, they’ll realize that stomping and screaming just isn’t worth it. 
  • Leave the scene. You may not be able to get your child to calm down. THAT’S FINE. If you have to abandon your fully loaded shopping cart, go back to your car, and leave in order to give your child the space they need to calm down, then do it

An Issue of Parental Pride

Bottom line: Tantrums are hard to deal with. They’re emotionally draining for everyone involved. And, unfortunately, there are two unfair (almost cruel) societal standards placed on parents and kids that don’t help things at all:

  1. “Good” children are not seen or heard in public.
  2. “Good” parents are ones who have children who are not seen or heard in public.

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Seeing it written down, we all see how impossibly dumb that is, right? 

It is so hard not to believe those two things, though. Those expectations are deeply ingrained in American culture that it takes a concerted effort not to believe them. Parents have to remember … children are new human beings! They neither know or respect the expectations society places on them. They do not care. 

The hard thing that parents have to do? Join them in not caring. 

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It’s important to teach children how to manage their emotions and behaviors. That’s what this is all about! But expecting a child to know how to do that 100% of the time in public is unfair to them AND you. The unsolicited, judgemental stares of strangers are painful to endure at the time, but overcoming their insensitivity is worth it if it means helping your child learn how to better deal with their emotions.

For more about tantrums, discipline, positive parenting read:

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