Tantrums are normal for toddlers, even legendary. Toddlers feel so passionately about everything, and they simply don’t have enough frontal cortex capacity yet to control themselves when they’re upset. That said, you’ll be glad to know that many tantrums are avoidable.
In a public place, a toddler’s tantrum can be embarrassing and stressful for parents. Since a good number of public tantrums are an result of feeling powerless, toddlers who feel they have some control over their lives have fewer tantrums. And since toddlers who are tired and hungry don’t have the inner resources to handle frustration, managing your toddler’s life so he isn’t asked to cope when he’s hungry or tired will reduce tantrums. An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.
Here’s how to tame those toddler public tantrums:
1. Positive Empowerment. Prevent public tantrums in the first place by giving your child plenty of POSITIVE power throughout the day – lots of choices so he can have some control over his world. (blue towel or yellow towel, Spiderman toothbrush or Batman toothbrush) Parents can also give positive power by training their toddler on “grown up” tasks that make him feel capable and allow him to contribute in meaningful ways. “Grown up” tasks for toddlers include putting spoons and forks away, feeding pets, watering plants (with specific measuring cups) and using a hand-held vacuum to clean up messes. When kids have plenty of positive power, they’re less likely to act out with negative power behaviors – like tantrums.
2. Give them a Job. Prevent public tantrums by planning ahead and giving toddlers important jobs at the grocery store. Take a clipboard and a crayon so she can cross off items as you put them in the cart. Toddlers love the power that comes from checking items off a list.
3. Plan Ahead. Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, enforced rests, cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation — whatever it takes — prevent most tantrums. Learn to just say no — to yourself! Don’t squeeze in that last errand. Don’t drag a hungry or tired kid to the store. Make do or do it tomorrow.
4. Try to Handle Anger before Escalation. It’s amazing how acknowledging your child’s anger can stop a brewing public tantrum in its tracks. Before you set a limit, acknowledge what your child wants. For example, You wish you could have more juice, you love that juice, right?” (Look, he’s already nodding yes!) Then set the limit. Keep your words pared down. It’s hard for toddlers to follow language when they’re upset, like “No Hitting“, “You are so mad“.
5. Be Calm & Don’t react! The most important strategy for dealing with public tantrums in the moment is to NOT REACT. She’s having the tantrum specifically to GET a reaction from you! Don’t give any verbal feedback. Don’t give eye contact. A public tantrum isn’t nearly as rewarding when we remove the audience. When parents try to “talk the child down from the ledge” or stop the tantrum, it reinforces that tantrums are a great way to get attention, get them upset (big power hit) and prove that “she’s not the boss of me.” When your toddler is calmed down and ready to go back into the store, you can go.
What to do after tantrums?
First, take some “cozy time” together to reconnect and reassure. (No, you’re not “rewarding” the tantrum. She needed this connection with you or she wouldn’t have had the tantrum to begin with! And of course, make sure that your child gets enough “cozy time” with you that she doesn’t have to tantrum to get it.)
Second, tell the story of what happened, so that your child can understand and reflect, which builds the pre-frontal cortex. For example, ““You were having such a good time playing at the playground…you didn’t want to go home. When I said it was time to go, you were sad and mad…You yelled NO and hit me…Right? I said No Hitting! and you cried and cried…. I stayed right here and when you were ready we had a big, big hug…. Now you feel better. It’s hard to leave the playground when you’re having fun. It’s okay to feel sad. You can tell me “SAD!” and I will understand. But no hitting. And you know what? We can go to the playground again tomorrow and have fun. There is always more fun for us!”