An earsplitting screech penetrated the checkout line (and beyond) as a child erupted in strong protest over the “no candy” limit their parent had just set. Everyone in the area waited expectantly to see what would happen next. Would the parent “cave” and be branded an overly permissive parent raising a brat? Or would they ignore their child’s screams, appearing to be an uncaring parent who is not bothered with doing the tough parts of parenting? Could there be a middle ground where all come away with a smile on their face?
Handling a child’s strong feelings in public is tricky business. It seems like no matter what you do, someone thinks it is wrong.
Do parents cause tantrums or make them more intense and long-lasting? Sometimes! For example, when you set a limit (e.g. no cookie), then after your child whines, cries and escalates into a full-on scream about the cookie you say, “well okay, just this once you can have one” because you are so done with the whining. This teaches your child that if they are persistent and loud, they will eventually get what they want.
However, many tantrums simply happen because of who your child is, and where they are at in their development. Some children (and certainly some more than others) scream, shout, sob, hit, push, and run in public because they are born with the intensity and persistence to display bigger (and louder) outbursts. Others are set off by lousy local conditions such as no nap, hunger and an over-stimulating environment. And all children go through developmental stages such as needing everything to be done their way, and wanting all their ideas to be acted on: “I want to push the button for the elevator!” “I want to leave NOW.” “I want that balloon! No not the red one, the BLUE one.”
Our goal is usually to either head off the tantrum before it gets too big, or get through it as quickly as possible. Next time you are out in public and you sense a storm is brewing, try one of the strategies below and see if it changes the outcome.
Set limits in positive ways. We do need to set limits, but we can do so in ways that are caring and firm. “You really wish you could walk by yourself. I remember yesterday we tried that and you ran into the street. Today we are holding hands or you can ride in the stroller. You can practice walking by yourself in a safer place later.” Find the words that work for you to convey to your child that you respect their ideas and emotions BUT also let them know you will set limits to keep them safe because it’s your job.
Plan ahead. You know the likelihood of your child sitting quietly during story time at the library is close to zero. Make a plan to maximize the chance your child will make it through. Try getting there early so she can run around before the story starts. Find a seat in the back. Bring a special “lovey” for holding during the actual reading of the story. Tell your child ahead of time what you will do if they run around “If your body can’t sit during the story, we will take a break to get a drink of water, then we can try again. Bodies need to be sitting during story time.”
Set clear expectations. “The choices today are to ride in the cart or hold my hand. If it gets hard for you to remember to hold my hand, I will help your body into the cart.”
It also helps to focus on the positive–what can your child do as opposed to what is not allowed. Very young children will often just hear the verb/noun part of a sentence (“No running in the store” becomes “running store!”) Say what you want to see: “We use walking feet in the store.”
Play “waiting” games. Learning how to wait is an important life skill…that most children need lots of practice with! Explain what can happen while you wait in the checkout lane (often the place of many a child’s tantrum). “We can play I Spy while we wait. Do you want to choose what I should look for?” Or, “Let’s put on our listening ears. Tell me what sounds you can hear that are not people talking.”
Buy yourself time. You are in a very public place and your child demands a cookie. Sometimes a response of: “Let me think about it,” or “hmmm, I’m not sure yet,” can give yourself a moment to decide if you want to say no or yes. You can buy yourself more time by inviting your child into exploring the situation: “A cookie sure does sound good. Are cookies the kind of food that help your muscles and bones grow?” Or you could say yes to the cookie, but with the limit that you will bring it home to eat after lunch.
Expect the tantrum. A tantrum is often your child’s way of saying they need to let off emotional tension. It’s an “emotional sneeze.” Make sure your child knows ahead of time what your safety limits are: “I will not let you hurt me, hurt yourself or others, or damage things”. Big feelings can take your child to a very scary place. Young children don’t know that they won’t feel this way forever. They feel consumed by emotion and while the picture they present may be defiant and rude, there is a very scared little one wondering if it will ever end. Children need to know that we can handle their big feelings (even if we don’t like them much).
The great bubble. Imagine a great bubble has descended from above to encircle you and your child. You can no longer see or notice the reactions of others. Within the safe confines of this bubble, what do you see when you really look at your child? Sometimes letting go of concerns about what others are thinking frees us up to act in more helpful ways for our child.
Decide if you can bail. “Looks like it is too hard for you to be here right now. We are going to head to the car to help you calm down.” If you can’t leave the current place, find a spot where your child can be angry safely. Wait for the transition from anger to more sadness. Be available for a hug when the storm passes.
Try out something new.
When your child is in the midst of a tantrum, you can decide to try something new:
- Offer a hug “let me know when you are ready for a hug.” It’s surprising how often this really works!
- Remind yourself of what may have brought on the tantrum “oops, I forgot to remind him we weren’t getting any candy today and he is hungry.”
- Give your child your full attention and acknowledge/support their emotions: “You are really disappointed you can’t run onto the field. If you want to calm down, you can take some deep breaths, I’ll do it with you or you can try by yourself.
- Move to a better place to work with your child. “Your body is very loud right now, we need to go to another part of the store so I’m going to carry you.”
- Become very very calm and wait. “Let me know when you are ready to talk about this, do you need help calming down?
- Tell yourself that this moment will end. It’s just your child having big feelings.
Experiment with different approaches and see what seems to work the best for you and your child.
Children’s public displays of strong emotions tend to spike in early childhood and drop off through the preschool years, as children’s brains offer better impulse control. Preschoolers certainly are still capable of some dazzling public tantrums, but usually they are less frequent and you can see contributing factors fairly easily (bad day at preschool, getting sick, over tired).
The next time you find yourself with your child(ren) in public, and things start to go badly, welcome this opportunity for emotional learning! It is at these times of stress that our children learn the most about relationships.
And when the going gets hard, always remember: “This too, shall pass. This too, shall pass.”