Taming Public Temper Tantrums (page 2)
Q. My otherwise calm natured and obedient 3 year old occasionally turns into a monster when we’re at the grocery store or another public place. What recommendations do you have for taming (or avoiding) public temper tantrums?
A. Coping with grocery store tantrums, along with our babies crying on airplanes, can be among some of parenting’s most uncomfortable moments! Several adjustments of our expectations are necessary before we can help ourselves to feel more comfortably on our children’s side as they do what they need to do in a public place.
What causes tantrums?
When children become emotionally charged, they can’t think. They simply can’t function normally. They become rigid and unreasonable in what they want, and are unsatisfied with your attempts to give them what they want. They can’t listen, and the slightest thing may bring them to tears or tantrums. Their minds are full of upset. They can’t get out of that state without your help.
One of the reasons children tantrum while shopping is because they’ve lost their sense of connection. Parents have to find the car keys, make a list, make a few phone calls, get the children dressed, pack a snack or water, rush around, and then drive to the store. Our attention isn’t on connection—life is full of things to do! But this disconnected period of time upsets children’s delicate systems, which are designed to run on the premium fuel of connection, eye contact, play, and thoughtful messages from us.
The help your child needs at this time is to have you set kind, sensible limits, and then for you to listen while he bursts out with the intense feelings he has. This spilling of feelings, together with your kind attention and patience, is the most effective way to speed your child’s return to his sensible, loving self. A good, vigorous tantrum, or a hearty, deeply felt cry will clear your child’s mind of the emotion that was driving him “off track” and will enable him to relax again, feel your caring, and make the best of the situation he is in.
When can I expect tantrums?
There are certain situations in which young children often become emotionally charged. These situations include:
- Being with several people: with the whole family at dinner, at a family gathering, a meeting, a birthday party, the grocery store, church, or temple.
- Moving from one activity to another: leaving home for day care, leaving day care for home, stopping play for dinner, going to bed.
- Being with a parent who is under stress: the parent is cooking, cleaning, shopping, trying to finish a task on time, and is upset because there’s so little help.
- At the end of any especially close or fun-filled time: after a trip to the park, after a good friend leaves, after wrestling, chasing and laughing with Mom or Dad.
What do I do when there is a tantrum?
Remember that every good child falls apart in public places. This is, for some reason, the way children are built!
We also need to remember that our society has trained people to disapprove of children doing what is healthy and natural. People disapprove of horseplay, of noise, of exuberance, of too much laughter, of tantrums, of crying, of children asking for the attention they need. This disapproval is out of line. Children are good, and their needs are important, including the need to offload bad feelings.
We don’t have control over our children’s behavior. We do have deep influence on them. How we love, cherish, and treat our children affects them moment by moment, and for the rest of their lives. But our influence doesn’t mean that we can exert control over how they behave and feel. Nor does it mean that a child whose behavior is difficult comes from a parent who is not trying hard enough, or is not doing the right things.
Here are some things you can do to prevent or confidently cope with emotional moments in public:
- Spend one-on-one time with your child before you take him to a public place, so that you and he are warmly connected with each other before heading into a challenging situation. Then, stay connected. Use eye contact, touch, your voice, and short spurts of attention to keep him in the orbit of your love. This contact is deeply reassuring, and can sometimes defuse situations that your child often finds difficult.
- When you see an upset brewing, make contact right away. See if you can find a way to play, so that your child can laugh. Laughter relieves children’s tensions, and allows them to feel more and more connected. If, when you make contact, your child begins to cry or tantrum, do what you can to allow him to continue. His upset will heal if the feelings are allowed to drain.
- Slow down the action, and listen. If getting into the car seat has triggered tears, then stay there, seat belt not yet done, and let the tears flow. Listen until he is done. Crying has many useful functions in the body, including washing out stress hormones, and allows tension to dissolve. Because of this cry, your whole day, and his, will improve.
- If necessary, move to a more socially acceptable place. Go to the back bedroom, or move your grocery cart out the exit to the sidewalk. Do this as calmly as you can. Your child isn’t doing anything wrong. It’s sort of like a car alarm going off accidentally—it’s loud, but it’s not going to hurt anyone who hears it. These things happen!
- Plan what you will say to people who express their opinions or concern. It’s hard to come up with a comment that says, “We’re OK—don’t worry!” in the middle of wild things happening, so think ahead. You can adopt some phrase like, “We seem to be having technical difficulties,” or, “It’s that kind of a day!” or simply, “We’re OK. I don’t think this will last all day.” A comment like this reassures others, and gives the message that you are in charge.
As one parent I know put it, “I’ve finally figured out that it’s my job to set a limit when he’s going “nuts,” and it’s his job to get the bad feelings out. As I listen to him, people might not be able to tell that I’m doing my job and he’s doing his, but at least I know that’s what’s going on.”
Part of this article was based on material from of Patty Wipfler’s articles:
Handling Children’s Feelings in Public Places and Being “In Control” – The Possible and Impossible in Parenting.
You can find more information about “Tantrums and Indignation” in the NAPPA Gold Award winning series, “Listening to Children”, by Patty Wipfler, available here.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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