Every parent has been there. You are in the check-out aisle of a grocery store, and your toddler or preschooler reaches for a candy bar. You remove them and calmly tell them they can have a snack soon when they get home, but no candy right now. They then proceed to throw a fit. Screaming, flailing, throwing themselves on the floor. Everyone is staring at you, you imagine they are all thinking what a terrible parent you must be to let your toddler scream like that. What do you do?
This is easier said than done when your toddler or preschooler is having a meltdown in public, but it is essential in dealing with a screaming toddler. You have to approach the public tantrum like a police officer would when responding to a situation where an irrational person is causing a scene. You have to take command of the situation is a calm, reasonable manner. We all want to go home to our families safe and sound, kid. Seriously though, your toddler or preschooler feels very out of control when their emotions are overwhelming them, and they will tend to respond to the feeling you are projecting. Getting angry with them and using threats or force will only escalate the situation. Try to maintain composure. Speak softly, calmly, get down to their level.
While you are trying to be calm, you absolutely have to put everyone else out of your mind. It is your child and you in this moment, no one else. Although you believe everyone is staring at you (and some of them might be!) , you absolutely cannot let your assumption of what other people think of you or what they think you should do interfere with how you handle your child’s tantrum. The goal is to get through the tantrum with your relationship with your child in tact. Truthfully, many of them are probably feeling empathy for you. Chances are they have been there.
Empathize With Your Child
Speaking of empathy, your toddler or preschooler is likely having a tantrum because they want something the can’t have, want to do something they are unable to do, are hungry, tired, bored, or overstimulated. These are the most common reason for tantrums. Empathize with them. Treat them how you would like to be treated. Statements like, “I know you wanted the candy but that isn’t good for our bodies. It’s tough not to get things we want. I know, baby,” can be very helpful. Again, get down to their level, hug them if they will let you, offer a distraction, or an alternative if you have one. Ask them to help you with a task, such as putting things in the shopping cart, for example.
Remove Them From The Situation
Finally, if your child is simply having a huge meltdown in the middle of a store and nothing you do seems to help, it is best to remove them temporarily. Typically I wouldn’t recommend someone using physical force on a child, but if it is causing more stress for both of you to be stuck in a virtual suspension of time and space accompanied by their screams, it is best to leave. As gently as you can, take them to the nearest safe place. Then, let them have at it.
Tantrums in and of themselves are not bad things to be stamped out and squelched. For toddlers and small kids, tantrums are a release valve to let out all the steam that builds up from not being able to effectively communicate yet. They are one way a small child communicates that he or she is feeling very out of control and helpless. Your goal is to help them communicate in ways that don’t involve huge public meltdowns, but this will come in time. In the meantime, loving them through their tantrums goes much further in reducing their frequency and severity than punishing or shaming a child for their big emotions will. This isn’t to say that you just give a child everything they want because they scream for it. Quite the contrary. It is perfectly fine to enforce personal boundaries while still empathizing, as in the candy example earlier.
Tantrums take a lot out of a child and a parent, especially when these meltdowns happen in public. Trust though, that you will be proud of yourself every time you maintain control. You will be modeling to your child that handling strong emotions is possible, as well as showing them that you still love them, even when you don’t like how they are behaving.
You will get through it, and be a better parent for it.