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The No-Fear Guide to Handling Public Tantrums

Looking for the thrill of a good horror flick this month? Forget Michael Myers. I have two words for you: public tantrum. There’s nothing like parenting a screaming child amid a staring crowd to inspire the thrill seeker’s sweaty palms and coveted Knot of Dread.

It seems children have a sixth sense for the situations where parents are most likely to cave, and they’re usually the public ones. While parenting in front of an audience is never easy, you can discourage tantrums and reduce the fear factor by keeping a few things in mind.

You’re in good company

When Sherie Cocchiola’s three-year-old starts winding up, “I pretend it’s not bothering me, but I feel my face getting hotter and hotter. It’s almost worse right before, when I know she’s about to lose it.”

This is a great time to remind yourself that you’re not alone. Of 1,500 children aged three to five, 84 per cent were reported to have had a tantrum that month, according to a 2012 study led by researcher Lauren Wakschlag of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

While it may feel like your child is the only one with an issue, the occasional tantrum is a normal part of childhood - and parenthood.

“When I see another parent dealing with a tantrum, there’s no judgment. I just thank God it’s not mine,”
says Cocchiola.

“I know I shouldn’t let it bother me so much. They’re probably thinking the same thing when it’s us, right?”

Set boundaries before you go out

Knowing your preschooler’s triggers will give you a good idea of when and where a tantrum will strike. If you’re not sure of their triggers, pay attention to where you are and what’s happening when they get especially cranky or defiant. Some children find it difficult to tag along on errands, while others might act out when required to sit still at a restaurant. One way to discourage negative behavior is to set boundaries ahead of time.

“With public tantrums, it’s even more imperative that you’re black and white, and that you state what’s expected before you go out,” says Tanya Buchrieser, MS, a parent trainer for over 10 years and PhD candidate.

“Let’s say you’re going to a party and your child has an issue with sharing or taking turns… you might indicate at home or in the car on the way, ‘Last time we had a problem with sharing. Remember that we take turns when we’re playing with other children. If I see you having a hard time sharing - screaming, yelling or kicking - we’re leaving.’”

If you’re asking your child to withstand a particularly challenging situation for them, whether it’s getting a haircut or enduring a trip to a store, consider offering a reward for good behavior.

Avoid the pitfalls of bribery by offering the reward beforehand, on your terms, and not right in the middle of a difficult trip or tantrum. Before entering the situation, let your child know that if they behave appropriately, you’ll stop for ice cream after, let them watch a favorite television show or give another reward you’ve chosen for them. Simple reminders of the reward may be enough to keep your child on track during your trip.

Keep your cool and jet

If your child does pitch a fit, deny them not only the object or reward they wanted, but your emotional response as well. That means remaining calm and not showing anger or frustration.

Preschoolers throw tantrums for different reasons, but the classic tantrum is often prompted by an underlying desire for control - whether it takes the form of buying a desired toy, extra playtime or simply getting a rise out of you. If that doesn’t happen, your child will soon learn that they’re ineffective. This doesn’t mean you should have no reaction at all when out in public.

“It’s interesting how many parents sit there while their child is having a huge temper tantrum in the middle of the mall,” says Buchrieser.

“Definitely don’t ignore it. You want to, in a clear and calm voice, restate what you said in the car and then indicate that ‘we’re going to leave if you don’t stop.’ Remind them what’s expected, and if they don’t calm down within a minute or two, I would just take the child and leave. It also depends on the child. If you know that talking to your child during that temper tantrum is going to set them off even more, then you just pick them up and go.”

If you, too, dread the stares that follow your screaming child - and you - out the door, prepare in advance to leave as quickly and gracefully as possible. Note where the exits are and plan how you’ll remove them from the situation until they calm down. If your child tends to run away, hit or kick, a stroller with snug straps should contain them nicely.

If you’re entering a social situation with people you know, decide in advance if you’ll take the time to excuse yourself, and how. Planning ahead will make it much easier to handle things quickly and remain level-headed should a problem come up.

Know what you’ll say - and not say - to meddlers

Sometimes it takes longer than expected to round up siblings or attend to other last-minute tasks, and in addition to stares, you may find yourself fielding unsolicited advice or sideline commentary.

“When you’re in public, there are a lot of considerations. You start getting embarrassed, people start looking; you feel like you have to make excuses. So now you’re telling people, ‘I’m sorry, she’s not feeling well today,’ or whatever it is,” says Buchrieser. “If I was in the mall and my child was acting inappropriately, I think I would remove them so quickly that there wouldn’t be anyone coming over.” If they did comment, “I would probably look at them and say, ‘Thank you, we’re okay. We’re dealing with a temper tantrum. You know how it is when they’re [this age].’ And I would just keep it very short, no excuses, very concise. Thank you, but no thank you.”

The aftermath

If you feel the need to discuss behavior after your child has calmed down, be brief.

“They are still very little, and the more you harp on it, the worse it makes it,” says Buchrieser.

“Keep it simple, sweet and firm: ‘I know you were upset, but I told you before we went into the store that I’m not buying you anything, so we’ll try again next week.’ And then that’s it, move on to something else.”

An exception to this would be if you suspect a deeper issue, such as sickness, special needs or changes at home like a death in the family. In that case, your child may need a doctor, therapist or early intervention to work through the real cause of their tantrums.

Channel your inner calm, and with a little practice and preparation, you’ll handle the next tantrum cool, confident and fear-free.

Common tantrum causes and cures

Lack of sleep - Your child has had a restless night and spent the morning at a bounce house, and you know the afternoon’s playdate is pushing it. It’s unfair to expect your exhausted child to push through with star behavior. Reschedule or try to find a way for them to get some rest beforehand.

Lack of food or drink - You’re in the middle of errands when your child wants something to drink, and you realize you left the bag of snacks at home. This isn’t the time to ask your child to deal with it. Hit the nearest convenience store or drive-thru, stat.

Overstimulation - Birthday parties are ripe with tantrums, thanks to constant activity, excitement and sugar. If you suspect your child is on a downward spiral, consider taking them someplace calm for a bit, such as
a quiet room or on an extra-long walk to the car.

Colleen is the work-at-home mom of a spirited preschooler who inspires many of her articles, including (unfortunately)
this one.


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