They’re watching you.
You can feel several sets of eyes on you – watching and waiting for your next move.
Your child has just started screaming and thrashing, and everyone around is wondering what will happen next.
You can feel the weight of their stares, judgment, and disapproval. Not to mention their almost morbid curiosity.
It’s every parents’ nightmare… a public tantrum. It’s embarrassing, awkward and humiliating.
Particularly if you don’t deal with it ‘right’.
But can you actually deal with tantrums in public the ‘right’ way while keeping your positive parenting hat on? Or, better yet, can you prevent the whole thing from happening in the first place?
Well yes, I believe you can.
You see, tantrums can be prevented before you even set foot outside the house. And even when tensions rise and a tantrum seems imminent, it can be nipped in the bud.
And if the worst happens, and your child launches into a full-throttle temper tantrum in public, there are empathetic and supportive ways of handling the situation.
Let’s take a closer look at how to deal with tantrums today, particularly the ones that happen in public with the spotlight squarely on you. Specifically we’ll look at 3 stages — the way before, the just before, and the during of the dreaded public temper tantrum.
Editor’s Note: While many of the tips below are focused on younger kids, I want to acknowledge that yes, big kids can have tantrums too. And yes, it is perfectly normal. Ariadne from Positive Parenting Connection has a fantastic article about big kids’ anger and tantrums – check it out.
While Everything Is Cool
I have a confession to make.
My kids haven’t had a public tantrum yet.
They’ve had plenty at home, or in the car, but never in public so far.
I think it’s because I took a number of steps to prevent tantrums while we were out.
Here’s what’s worked for us –
1. Tell Them What’s Going On
Whenever I was out and about and my kids could access toys -like at the Doctor’s office or the hairdresser or wherever – I told them the toys weren’t for keeps.
I also gave them notice that we’d be leaving in ten minutes, and reminded them at five minutes, so they knew what was happening.
I’d say something like, “These are great toys, aren’t they? You can play with them while we’re here but when we leave we’ll have to leave them for other children to play with.” Or, “We will be leaving in five minutes so wrap things up, sweetheart.”
Kids are like us and they want to know what to expect. Unlike us, they need to be told every single time – even if they were at the same place last week.
It may seem repetitive and tedious, but not telling kids what’s going on is a sure-fire trigger for tantrums.
Which one would you take – tedious repetitions or awkward, embarrassing tantrums?
2. Be Prepared For Problems
I always have an emergency stash of stuff. By ‘stuff’ I mean food and entertainment.
Having emergency ‘stuff’ has helped prevent heaps of potential tantrums, particularly when I’m out of the house longer than I planned. Kids often have a melt-down when they’re tired, hungry or bored, so this emergency pack is crucial for preventing problems.
I’d pack things like muesli bars, small packs of biscuits or fruit bars for little kids.
OK, I’m not good at cleaning out my bag, and some days I’m in a hurry so I like to have things that just live there.
Entertainment wise, I’ve always had a little pad and some colored pens or pencils. Whenever I am in a discount store I pick up stickers or other small toys I can squirrel away and bring out when I found myself stuck.
Yes, that does make the purse a little bulkier, but that’s a small price to pay for avoiding tantrums, don’t you think?
3. Set Expectations For Behavior
Before we left the house I’d have a chat with my kids about where we were going and what we should both expect.
This sets your expectations for the child. If they think they’re just going to the hairdressers, they can get cranky that they’re going other places later.
It also gives parents a chance to establish what they expect. So I could say, “We’re going to the hairdresser, and then we’re going to the grocery store. While we’re at the grocery store we might see toys. It’s fine to look at them but we won’t be buying toys today.”
It’s good to include the one or two most important rules, without bombarding your child. You can always give them any special rules along the way.
For example, some parents have an ‘if you get in the cart you stay in the cart’ rule. So, you might remind them of this when you’re on the way to the store.
When Temperatures Rise
You can prepare all you want, but things change and contingencies arise.
Maybe we added another stop to the journey that we hadn’t anticipated, or things were taking longer than expected and the kids are bored of the boredom busters I’d packed in my purse.
Here are the simple things we’ve done to avert WWIII.
1. Give Them A Little Attention
Sometimes all you need to do is stop for a moment and give your kids a little attention. You could say something like, “You’re bored with grocery shopping?” and then agree that it’s boring.
A quick hug also works wonders.
You can let them know you’re thinking of them by agreeing to do something they’d like next. Like stopping at the park before going home, or reading their favorite book when you get home.
2. Get Them Involved
Another neat trick is to get kids involved in what you’re doing.
If you’re grocery shopping, turn it into a game. Maybe they get to take items from Mommy to Daddy, to put in the cart. Maybe they cross things off a list for you.
When they’re old enough, they can help you find things on the shelves. You can ask them, “Can you see the peanut butter we use at home?”
Or engage them in a game of “I Spy” or “Who can be the first one to find 10 things that start with the letter T?” or “20 Questions”.
An idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Getting them involved can help you get back quickly from the brink of a tantrum.
3. Keep Your Voice Calm And Low
When you notice your child starting to get worked up, make sure you keep your own voice calm, low and slow. Not patronizing, but comforting.
This helps to keep you calm, and it’s soothing for your child. It might not stop them being irritable, but it will prevent them getting worse.
It will also let your child know that you’ve heard them. By changing the tone and pace of your voice, and making eye contact, you convey that you’ve actually heard what they said.
When They’re Too Hot To Handle
Okay, so preventing a tantrum is all well and good, but what happens if you find yourself in the middle of a full-blown tantrum?
Here are a few things to try.
1. Pretend You’re At Home
As much as possible, pretend you’re at home or, at least, alone.
Don’t let yourself get caught up in worrying about what people think. You’ll end up stressed, and no matter how hard you try to hide it, your child will pick up on that.
And get worse.
Ray Levy, Ph.D., a Dallas-based clinical psychologist and co-author of Try and Make Me! Simple Strategies That Turn Off the Tantrums and Create Cooperation says –
We know from studies that the only thing people judge is your reaction to the meltdown. If you look calm and like you’ve got it under control — yes, even though you’re not doing anything to stop the fit — they think, Now that’s a good mom.
In fact, research indicates that doing nothing can be the best way to handle a tantrum.
2. Relent At Your Peril
Whatever you do, don’t give in to what your child wants.
Because they’ll try it again next time. If a child gets their way by screaming once, then they’ll do it again. They may just scream louder and longer next time.
If your kids are older, you could try to explain to them why their behavior is unacceptable in a calm and in-control voice.
With smaller children, there’s no point in trying to reason. Dr. B from Mommyshorts says, “Children do not begin to develop the reasoning skills necessary to understand simple rules or verbal explanations until around 3-years-old”.
If you have to, remove them to a space where they’re not going to hurt anyone or get in the way.
It’s a good idea to tell them first by saying, “Take some deep breaths and calm down. If you can’t calm down we’ll sit over there until you feel better.”
It’s not a naughty corner or a punishment. It’s a safe place to calm down, out of everyone’s way.
3. Deep Breathe For Two
Deep breathing can be calming, but how do you get a small child to stop howling and breathe?
Well, I tell my daughter to “think about your belly button”. The first time I did this she was so surprised she just stopped and look at her tummy. Then she really concentrated on her belly button.
Another way to get kids to breathe deeply is to use Amanda Morgan’s birthday candle technique to get them to take a few deep breaths.
She pretends her thumb is a candle on top of her fist and says, “Oh, look at this! I have a candle. Do you think you could blow it out?”
As they blow, she wiggles her thumb like a candle and then closes her fist so the candle goes out. But then she pops it back up (with sound effects) and encourages them to take a deeper breath and try again.
With older kids, you could say, “We both are beginning to get worked up. Let’s calm down by taking 5 deep breaths. Let’s do it together…” and start breathing deeply yourself.
Keep Cool, Calm and Collected
Life is all about experimenting. Trying out what works and what doesn’t.
And kids are clever. So naturally they try all sorts of things. Including tantrums.
Our role is to help them figure out what works. And what doesn’t.
So if your child tries a public temper tantrum and you feel the weight of all those stares, don’t drown in embarrassment.
Instead, step into your starring role. Ignore the paparazzi, and keep cool, calm and collected.
And repeat these magic words to yourself:
“I am A Fine Parent! I can handle this!” 🙂
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to consider your child’s behaviour.
- Do your kids have public tantrums often?
- If yes, do you see a pattern that can help you figure out why this might be happening?
- If no, what are you doing right, and what can you do more of?
- What behaviour does your chilld exhibit when they’re getting fractious?
- How much do you tell your child – about where you’re going, and when you’ll leave?
- Do you think altering your communication will make a difference?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Take the next few moments to take stock of your purse and car. Pack up a few items such as snacks, pencils and a small pad for unexpected situations.
- Make a list of boredom busters that will work with you kids. What games can you play while out and about? How can you involve them when you’re doing ‘boring’ things like shopping?
- Visualize your child having a public tantrum. Make a list of what you will do to come out a super positive parent. Visualising the event now – while you’re calm – will leave you in a much better position to handle things in a high-stress situation if a public tantrum actually occurs.
- If your child is prone to temper tantrums, think about whether they’re ‘working’ for them. Do they get anything positive out of it (ie attention, or their own way). How can you increase the positive reinforcement they receive, so they’re less likely to use this strategy in the future?