7 Ways to Tame Your Toddler During a Public Meltdown

By Kara Reynolds | Jun 14, 2016

If you’re the parent of a toddler in the “terrible twos” phase, raise your hand. Seriously, I’m sorry, and I’m right there with you. It can be a difficult time, though it may help to know that, no matter how many dirty looks you think you’re getting in the candy aisle of the grocery store as your child pitches a screaming hissy fit, there are just as many sympathetic shoppers who totally understand what’s going on. The fact of the matter is that tantrums are a totally normal part of childhood. Since learning to walk and talk, your toddler has gotten a taste of the freedom and power that come along with her growing skill set, and it’s flat-out intoxicating. She longs to be more independent, yet so many things are still out of her control: Meal times, food choices, leisure activities, errands, climate change — the list goes on and on. After all, if YOU had to ask someone for help every time you were thirsty or had to go to the bathroom, and if YOUR tasks were constantly interrupted by someone deciding it was time for you to take a nap or wash your hands, you’d get frustrated, too!

Know What a “Normal” Temper Tantrum Looks Like

Temper tantrums are a developmentally normal behavior and tend to have similar symptoms every time, including:

  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Flailing arms and legs
  • Arching the back or stiffening, which makes your child difficult to move

In general, a normal tantrum should play itself out in about 15 minutes as your child regains control over his or her emotions (or, sometimes, cries herself to sleep). Longer tantrums, or ones that occur more than three times a day, could be a sign of something more serious, but for the most part, your child’s banshee-like behavior is just a part of growing up. Still, dealing with a tantrum in public is no fun at all, especially in this age of intense scrutiny and mom shaming. Here’s how to weather the storm of toddler tantrums:

Give Yourself a Quick Pep Talk

Be aware that tantrums can strike any time, any place. When it does, remind yourself that it’s totally normal and that you are still a good parent. Focus on the situation and do your best to ignore any dirty looks coming your way — you’re doing the best you can, and that’s totally okay.

Avoid Known Triggers

 During a calm moment, see if you can figure out what situations cause your child to freak out. Is it when a nap is overdue? When there are too many other kids around? Does your child hate the car seat? While you can’t avoid something like a car seat forever, you can do your best to guard against certain triggers when you have to be in public. Making sure your child is well-rested and fed before a round of errands is usually a good start.

Take a Deep Breath 

Before you say a word, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself. Adding your own emotional response to the chaos of a tantrum will only make things worse, not better. The louder your child gets, the more Zen you should be. This is easier said than done, of course, but there’s an old teacher trick that involves talking more quietly when the class is loud. Be the change you seek, grasshopper.

Offer a Choice

Try giving back a little of the power. Sometimes, your toddler’s frustration is caused by feeling out of control, and regaining a bit of that control can help soothe her. For example, if the screaming fit is over a candy bar that you are emphatically not buying, phrase your solution as a choice: “You have a choice. You can choose to put the candy bar back, or we’ll leave the store.” Likewise, offering a choice of clothing, snacks or activities can diffuse potentially explosive situations.

Move to Eye Level

When speaking to your child, you can show empathy by kneeling down and getting on her level. Getting down at your child’s level will also allow you to see if there’s anything in the way that could be a safety problem. If you suspect an episode of flailing and writhing on the floor is imminent, move any obstacles so she doesn’t get hurt.

Ignore the Behavior

Even though tantrums are normal, you don’t want to encourage them. If you give in to your child’s demands during a tantrum, you’ll reinforce the effectiveness of kicking and screaming to get what she wants. If at all possible — and this depends greatly on where you are and your own capacity to endure those dirty looks — step to the side and let the tantrum play out.

Move to Another Location

I’ll be the first person to support you if you can’t bear the thought of having a store full of old biddies watch your child scream! It’s also okay to scoop your child up and hightail it to the car to let the tantrum play out there. You may have to leave behind a cart full of groceries — I would probably return the next day! — but it might be totally worth it. Tantrums are hard, but remember: Like all things, these too shall pass. Dig deep, stay calm and remember that you’re doing a great job — and one screaming fit at the mall isn’t going to change that.

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