Toddler Tantrums: How to Handle Them

Suzanne Murray

Flickr photo by Citril
We've all been there. A toddler is crying, screaming bloody murder, and maybe even thrashing around on the floor of a store. The mother is embarrassed and stressed, and she just wants it to stop. Right now. This minute. Please?

Of course, she could always just walk away, point at the kid, and say something like, "Wow! I'm glad my child never behaves that way." (And pray that no one witnessed her interacting with the aforementioned kid earlier.) But, as much as some of us may want to do that or maybe even run out of the store like a bat out of hell, we can't (without risking arrest).

So I consulted with two parenting experts on how to handle a toddler tantrum in a public place.

Expert #1: Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, offers this advice:

The solution for public toddler tantrums has two components:

1. Prevent the tantrum in the first place
Give your child plenty of positive power throughout the day -- lots of choices so he can have some control over his world (blue towel or yellow towel, Spider-Man toothbrush or Batman toothbrush). Parents can also give positive power by training their toddler on “grown-up” tasks that make him feel capable and allow him to contribute in meaningful ways. “Grown-up” tasks for toddlers include putting spoons and forks away, feeding pets, watering plants (with specific measuring cups), and using the Dust Buster to clean up messes. 

Prevent tantrums by planning ahead and giving toddlers important jobs at the grocery store. Take a clipboard and a crayon so she can cross off items as you put them in the cart. Toddlers love the power that comes from checking items off a list. Also have a back-up plan by bringing other activities if she gets bored -- books on a CD or MP3 player with earphones are magical!

2.  Deal with the tantrum when it happens
Remember that your child has a right to have a tantrum, but you have a right to not participate. Be totally unimpressed. If you’re in a store, remove yourself to an out of the way corner or go out to the car (you may have to leave your cart) and let her have the tantrum.

The most important strategy for dealing with a tantrum in the moment is to NOT REACT.  She’s having the tantrum specifically to get a reaction from you! Don’t give any verbal feedback. Don’t give eye contact. A tantrum isn’t nearly as rewarding when we remove the audience. When parents try to “talk the child down from the ledge” or stop the tantrum, it reinforces that tantrums are a great way to get attention from mom, get them upset (big power hit), and prove that "she's not the boss of me."

When your toddler is calm and ready to go back into the store, you can go. 

Remember, the very best strategy is avoiding the tantrum in the first place by giving lots of positive power and planning ahead with important jobs she can do while you’re there.

Expert #2: Ann Corwin, PhD, M.Ed., aka The Parenting Doctor, offers this advice:

If you know there's the potential of your child having a tantrum in a public place, always have a plan ahead of time. As soon as your child starts to lose it, stop talking to them, don't look at them, and turn them around facing away from you in the cart.

If you think you can wait it out, remember that the looks you get from passersby are saying to themselves, "I'm so glad that isn't me" or "That was me yesterday and so I feel so sorry for that other mom." If your child starts to deescalate, say, "Great stopping" and touch them. 

If you child continues the tantrum, take your cart to the front of the store ask the check-out person to keep it in their back refrigerator and you'll be back. Take your child out of the cart from behind, no looking or talking to him. Put him into his car seat with his lovey and put on a music CD. The music will help change your child's mood. Drive around the block and try again to go in store to get your stuff, or wait until later when you can leave your kids with someone while you go back to store.

The key to stopping tantrums is what you do after it's over. So if your child is having them, wait until she stops and give her time and attention then. Also, kids learn best through play, so play stop-freeze games with your kids every day!

Has your toddler ever thrown a tantrum in a public place? How did you deal with it?

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