What to Do When Your Child Throws A Tantrum In Public

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Girl Having Argument With Mother At Candy Counter In SupermarketYou are at the end of a rather successful shopping endeavor when your 4 year old decides she is DONE. She drops to the floor and in a equally exhausted and cranky tone announces “I’m not walking anymore!” Exasperated you beg, “please get up. I just have 2 more things to get on my list and then we’ll be all done and we can go home!” Onlookers start to stare as your little girl replies with more volume than you would like, “No. I’m not moving anymore, EVER!”

Just when we think we’ve got this parenting thing down, our kids manage to throw a curve ball at us that leaves us completely baffled. Public tantrums can be one of these moments.

We all know that we are not the only ones that have experienced the joys of the “public tantrum.” Yet it can feel like we are all alone. It can feel like the whole world has joined forces against you in that moment to make you feel like the worst parent on the planet all from this rather common, developmentally normal behavior from our young children.

Why do public tantrums throw us off so much?

The fact that the tantrum is on display for everyone to see often makes us feel more vulnerable and like our thoughts and tactics are being scrutinized by every passing person. When in a public place we are often without valuable help, security and resources that may be present at home. We are usually on the go and we have a stronger sense of urgency to wrap up the “behavior” either to spare passers-by the drama or to move on to other obligations we have.

Recently a mother I worked with reported that she and her daughter carried out the exact scenario illustrated above. She expressed to me that when her daughter refused to move initially she panicked. After all, she didn’t have a stroller. What was she going to do? She and her daughter may very well die right there in the middle of the department store. She said to herself, “I don’t know what steps to do now!” She also reported to me that “people were staring and she felt lost.” In spite of all of these difficult feelings that popped up inside her, she did some amazing things. She recognized that her daughter was tired but “didn’t know what to do.” She got down to her daughters level on the floor and tried to let her daughter see that she understood. After some time of sitting together, her daughter calmed herself and became less defiant in her demeanor and attitude but was still unwilling to walk. When she was calm and felt un-threatened, Mom gently picked her up and carried her to the car.

Regardless of the fact that this mother did a wonderful job of dealing with the situation, she still felt unsure of herself. She continued to say that this event “threw her for a loop” even though she had dealt with the situation amazingly well, without yelling or hurt feelings. The tantrum didn’t last forever and valuable things were learned by this mother and her daughter. She wanted to know what she could have done differently. My advice was to be confident in her ability to be a great mom!

What can we take away from this mom’s strength?

I’d like to highlight some steps that this mother did so well even when she felt unsure and frustrated, along with a couple tips that can help us increase our confidence to meet challenges like public tantrums.

  1. Don’t worry about onlookers. You are probably doing better than you think you are. Other parents have been there before, trust me. If they don’t understand, they will someday. Remind yourself “It’s okay. Sometimes kids have a hard time, even when they are not in the privacy of their own home and that is okay.”

  2. Remember that your child’s tantrum says nothing about you as a parent. The sign of great parenting is not the child’s behavior. The sign of truly great parenting is the parents behavior. Your child’s behavior is just part of growing up and learning. Your greatest task is simply to manage your own response.

  3. TRU and effective principles are the same no matter the setting. This is the thing that the mother in our story demonstrated so well. Even though she had not planned specifically for a tantrum in the middle of the mall, she had prepared herself to respond in empathetic and effective ways that promoted intentional teaching, relationship building and self regulation and improvement no matter the circumstance. The following are a few of the universal TRU principles that she applied that work in public or in private.

  • Manage your own reaction (emotional, mental and physical response)

  • Get down to their level

  • Empathize: She might sit on the floor with her for a minute and say, “I see you’re really tired. How long of a rest do you think we need to get the energy to get back to the car?”

  • Help them manage their emotional state

  • Problem solve (Work with the child rather than against) and/or set and follow through with boundaries

  1. Incorporate playfulness where possible. This is a principle that may help in both a preventative and responsive way. Finding solutions to the problems that present themselves in a playful manner can oftentimes decrease negative emotionality on both your part and the part of your child and make otherwise un-seeable solutions, visible and doable.

A new confidence

It’s important to realize that even when we do everything “right” our kids may still choose not to act how we would like them to act, but that when we respond with empathy and maintain boundaries we are laying the foundation for better cycles in the future. A public tantrum is a great opportunity to demonstrate to our children that the same principles of healthy communication, empathy, kindness, gentleness, firmness and boundaries still apply in whatever setting they may arise. This brings a new kind of confidence for both parent and child. The child has a sense of security and a pattern of long term learning. The parent has the confidence to meet whatever challenges may arise.

If you found this article useful and would like to keep learning, I would love to work with you to help you have less stress, less yelling and more connection and cooperation with your kids. Find out more about the upcoming “Stop Yelling in 21 Days Coaching Course” and our TRU Parent Coaching Services.

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