You could be at the grocery store or the mall, a festive party or a solemn religious occasion. No matter where it happens, most parents at some point will endure the socially awkward experience of a child throwing a temper tantrum in public. It’s hard enough when children become overwhelmed by big feelings at home, but when tantrums occur in public, the additional social pressure can cause embarrassment and anxiety. When we feel like the eyes of the world are upon us and that our behavior is being judged along with our child’s, it can be difficult to respond to the situation in an effective way.
There are many ways of reducing the chance of a tantrum occurring in the first place. Taking care not to push children past age-appropriate limits for managing hunger, fatigue, boredom and frustration are just a few. But what can parents do when a ferocious human lightning storm strikes without warning in a public setting?
Stay focused and stay calm
The first and most important step is also the most difficult: remain calm. Children intuitively pick up on their parents’ emotions and mirror them back, so anger and frustration will only make the situation worse. Instead, picture yourself as the stable, reassuring rock in the midst of a storm. Stay close to your child, but not close enough to be hit or kicked. You don’t have to say anything because your words are unlikely to register at this moment. But if you do speak, use a calm, low voice and your soothing tone may take the temperature down a notch.
Some children respond well to physical contact, such as a tight hug or a hand rubbing their back. Others will find this infuriating. The silver lining of at-home tantrums is that parents can get to know their children’s preferences and respond accordingly in public.
The sense of being watched and judged makes it challenging to “keep calm and carry on,” but bear in mind that you may never see this particular audience again, whereas the relationship with your child will endure for life. Try to imagine that you are wearing blinders that block out the people around you and allow you to stay focused on doing what is best for your child. Most of those watching are probably remembering a time when they were in your shoes and feeling relieved that they are not in the hotseat this time!
Change the scene
Within the limitations of your situation, create a safe space for your child. Move away from potentially dangerous objects or locations if there is a chance that your flailing child may become injured or inflict injury on others. If you are at a party, find a quiet corner or go outdoors. If you are on a crowded elevator or bus, hold tight and get off at the first opportunity. Your kicking and screaming child will not enjoy being physically scooped up and moved, but achieving a degree of privacy and safety will be worth the temporary setback.
One of the advantages of changing the scene is that it often changes the mood. A child who feels overwhelmed while contained within an interior space may feel a bit better just by moving into a different room or going outside. Changing spaces may also provide unexpected distractions that can break the cycle. The sudden sight of squirrels chasing each other or the startling siren of a passing firetruck may provide just the right element of surprise. Recently, a mother in Washington, D.C. took her tantruming child off a crowded rush-hour commuter train and found an ally in a uniformed transit police officer who immediately captured her son’s attention and cut short the tantrum.
Stay the course
Be prepared to let tantrums run their course. No one enjoys them – least of all children, who often feel scared by the sudden explosion of strange and overwhelming feelings. Tantrums are a normal and age-appropriate step along the path to emotional maturity for preschool-age children and they serve a purpose in allowing for the release of pent-up feelings. Any adult who has experienced the benefits of a good cry can relate to the relief children often feel after a tantrum.
An important side-benefit of allowing tantrums to run their course is they are less likely to become manipulative. When parents try to short-circuit the natural flow of a tantrum by offering bribes or caving to their children’s demands, kids begin to associate throwing a fit with getting what they want.
Once a tantrum is over, carry on with what you were doing without a lot of discussion. Offer a tissue, give a hug and avoid shaming or blaming the child for venting emotions beyond his or her control. One effective way to reset the mood is to involve children in the next steps of your day. If the tantrum occurred at the grocery store and you had to take a break outside, ask if they would be willing to help you find the juiciest apples in the store for lunch. Or if you had to retreat to a quieter corner during a noisy party, ask if they can help you find your hostess in the blue polka-dotted dress. If they threw a fit when told it was time to leave the playground, use humor and playfulness to accomplish your goal. “Should we hop like bunnies all the way to the car, or stomp like angry dinosaurs?” “Do you think we can walk backwards all the way to that tree?”
Tantrums as teachable moments
In the midst of a tantrum – especially one thrown in public – a parent’s options are quite limited. After a tantrum has occurred, parents have many options for coaching children in how to cope with strong emotions. One of the most effective is by talking about the strong emotions experienced by characters in books. Children are often far more insightful and willing to discuss others’ feelings than their own. Ask a librarian for recommendations of children’s books that deal with emotions or that teach emotional literacy by putting a narrative and a name to feelings such as frustration, boredom or disappointment. Knowing that someone else gets overwhelmed by those feelings – even if it is a fictitious bear or mouse in a storybook – can help children feel understood while also helping them understand themselves.