Handling Your Toddler’s Public Temper Tantrums
While it's normal for young children to lose their temper, there are steps that parents can take to stop or prevent major meltdowns in public.
Why Do Toddlers Have Tantrums?
Even though it may seem like your toddler’s meltdowns are major stumbling blocks to healthy communication, temper tantrums are a typical part of early childhood for many young children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), temper tantrums are a normal way for children ages one through three to learn about or develop self-control. The AAP notes that by age four, most preschoolers have tamed tantrums.
During these ages, your little one is developing more than just self-control abilities. Their cognitive, social, emotional and language skills are all developing too. Think of these skill areas as ‘in progress’ right now. While your child is laying a framework, they haven’t fully developed these skill sets. This means your toddler is not yet a master of their emotions, words, or behaviors. Without the ability to fully recognize, understand, and express what’s going on in their head, young children can feel frustrated and that’s when a tantrum can develop.
For some toddlers, throwing a public temper tantrum can be a way of seeking attention. They know that by yelling or screaming, they will draw attention to themselves. When this happens in a public place such as in the middle of the grocery store, it can be embarrassing for any parent, but it’s important to remember that all toddlers get frustrated and it doesn’t make you a bad parent when your toddler has a meltdown that you can’t seem to solve.
How to Handle a Public Toddler Temper Tantrum
Once you have figured out the possible cause of the tantrum, or the ‘tantrum trigger’, it’s easier to handle.
There are a few steps you can take in any situation that will make the tantrum easier to cope with:
- De-stress yourself first. Think of the plane crashing scenario where the flight attendant would have you put your oxygen mask on first before helping your child. Take a mental health break, even if it’s only for a couple of seconds. Do whatever works for you, whether it’s a simple breathing exercise such as taking a few, controlled, deep breaths, closing your eyes and slowly counting to five, or visualizing a serene scene.
- Model appropriate behavior. Unlike your toddler, you do have the ability to control your emotions and express all of your powerful feelings verbally. Put those feelings in check and model appropriate behavior for your child. Use your words to tell your child that you don’t like how they’re acting or that their tantrum makes you sad or mad in a calm way. When talking to your child, do not hover over them. Crouch down to their level so that your eyes meet theirs.
- Ignore the tantrum. This technique does not always work. But in cases where you recognise exactly what your child wants – attention – it can sometimes be best not to indulge negative or bad behavior.
- Give your child the words they need. According to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, toddlers ages 18- through 23-months typically have a 50-word vocabulary. If the words to express the frustration your child feels mid-tantrum are not part of their current vocabulary, help them through this verbal tough spot. Don’t put words in their mouth, rather, introduce new ‘feeling words’ by asking them questions. Again, always make eye contact with your child when trying to have a meaningful conversation with them by crouching down to their level, rather than hovering over them intimidatingly.
- Focus on positive discipline by trying a time-out. This behavioral strategy literally gives your child time out from whatever is going on around them. It removes them from the tantrum-causing situation and gives them a few minutes to calm down. The AAP suggests giving a warning first, naming the unwanted behavior, and then (if that doesn’t work) using one minute of time-out per each year of your child’s age.
If Your Child's Tantrum is Unusual
In some public situations, you may find that none of the above techniques work. Or at the very least, you may need to tweek the strategies slightly. What should you do when there’s nowhere to put your child on time-out or you’re having a hard time exploring your child’s emotions because you don’t have your usual tools with you, such as emotion flashcards? If you’re really at a loss, resort to one of the following:
- Remove your child (and yourself) from the situation. If you feel like the situation is getting out of control and you are struggling to handle it, it may be best to leave the public place and go home. Explain to your child that you’ll try going on the shopping trip or outing again once they’re feeling calmer.
- Distract your child. We know this can be easier said than done. Redirection is a strategy you may already be aware of from your child’s preschool teacher. When the tantrum starts, quickly change your child’s focus to something else. Preschoolers love opportunities to help with certain tasks because it gives them a sense of responsibility and importance. If you give them a job to do and explain you need their help, whether it’s at the grocery store or the shopping center, knowing you are entrusting them can help improve their mood.
- Ignore everyone else. Your child isn’t the only person you may have to deal with. As your toddler releases an ear-rattling shriek, you will get looks. It happens. And your job in that moment is to ignore the judgy glares and stares. Laser-focus on your child and block out everyone else.
How Can You Prevent Public Tantrums?
Preventing a public tantrum from your toddler is often impossible. You can’t predict when a tantrum will occur, but you can prepare for it by:
- Avoiding naptime excursions. Sleep deprivation can lead to extreme crankiness, frustration, and a tantrum. Although it’s often easier to get tasks and jobs done whilst your child is asleep, if they wake up in a different area to where they fell asleep, they can feel confused. If you have the capacity to do so, try and arrange your schedule so that your toddler can take their naps at home.
- Bringing snacks. Like lack of sleep, hunger can also lead to toddler temper tantrums. Snacks are also a great distraction.
- Bringing family members along with you. Some toddlers go through stages where they behave better for other family members than they do for their own mom or dad. This is tough for any parent. While you don’t want to encourage this, sometimes it may be easier to bring a family member along and ask them to model good behavior.
- Avoiding certain situations. Spotting triggers that cause your child to feel frustrated can help you avoid certain things in the future. There may be particular noises or sounds that cause your child to feel uncomfortable and result in them worrying that they’re not in a safe place.
Are you looking for more ways to talk to your toddler? Check out the positive parenting phrases that can help young children.
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Erica is an experienced parenting and education writer, with an M.S. in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.