How to Tame Your Child’s Public Tantrums

For the parents of a young child, the toy store can be a minefield. While my daughter, at four years old, knows that throwing a 2 year old temper tantrums is the quickest way to not get what she wants, her 21 month old brother has yet to learn that lesson. A week ago, when it came time to leave the store, I told my son he could not have the yellow ball he had been carrying around the store. He flipped out, fist balled up, face scrunched, squirming like an eel. While I strapped him into his stroller he continued to blow a gasket. I felt like all eyes were on me, “the bad mother.” He cried during the entire walk home.

Now, I could have bought him the ball and saved myself some embarrassment, but according to the experts, that would have been wrong.

Judy Arnall, author of “Discipline without Distress” and a parenting expert in Calgary says, “Parents are afraid of a child’s anger and explosions, but the worst thing to do is give in to a tantrum.” She believes consistency is the key. “Kids need to learn that are limits. Stick with ‘no’ and endure the tantrum.”

According to Judy, tantrums are not a discipline issue, it’s developmental. Since toddlers don’t understand the concept of public and private space, they don’t have much self-control.

Michael Potegal says a 12 month old may exhibit some signs of a full blown tantrum, the real emotional meltdown will usually begin at about 18 months, but are most common between the ages of two and three. As a pediatric neuropsychologist with the University of Minnesota, he has studied toddler behavior extensively. According to Michael, younger children’s tantrums are more frequent but shorter (an average of two to three minutes), and older children have longer tantrums (three to five minutes), but they occur less frequently.

As a parent you need to learn the warning signs and learn dealing with toddler behavior problems is a major parent job. A tantrum is more likely to occur if your child is tired, hungry or overstimulated. During outings make sure to be ready with distractions like books and toys, and snacks.

But what do you do when this happens in the grocery store? Should you keep shopping with your child kicking and screaming in the cart?

If your child’s behavior is mild to moderate you should ignore it, says Arnall. She recommends looking through a magazine or checking your phone. But if the behavior becomes extreme, a public time out may be in order. “Pull them into a private corner.” If that doesn’t work, Arnall suggest picking them up and leaving.

After the tantrum is over and everyone is calm turn this into a teachable moment. Don’ t try to do this while your child is in the middle of a tantrum. They won’t hear you.

There are two traps you need to avoid when your child is having a tantrum. The first is anger, the other is sadness. “It’s easy to lose your temper when kids are oppositional.” Which is why Potegal warns parents not to get into a shouting match. This only teaches them to get what they want they need to yell louder.

The sadness trap is subtle. “We’re hard wired to feel sympathy for kids in distress.” According to Potegal, children are usually weepy after a tantrum. At that moment you may be tempted to cuddle them. However that only teaches them that if they act out and make a fuss, they’ll get comforted. He suggests telling the child in the midst of the tantrum that if they stop crying and behave, they’ll get a big hug. This will help them learn how to regulate their emotions rather than having them regulated for them.

When we finally reached home from the toy store, the sun was bright and my son happily trotted off to play with the red ball he already owned. While he had obviously moved on, forgetting the yellow ball and the incident at the store, my blood was still boiling. “Kids can go from happy to sad in the blink of an eye,” says Potegal.

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