Has your toddler ever had a meltdown or temper tantrum?
Does your child cry uncontrollably to get something they want?
Have you ever wished the floor would open up in the store and swallow you because of how your child was behaving?
If any of these things have happened to you, then you probably are the parent of a toddler who is in the middle of a tantrum. Inevitably, these behaviors are on full display in large public spaces like the line at the grocery store or in the middle of the aisle at a big box store. As a parent, you feel the weight of the stares and glares from the other customers and employees. Your heart rate rises. Your hands get sweaty. You may feel embarrassed or that you are the worst parent ever. All you want is for your child to please, please, please BEHAVE.
What do you do? How do you parent your toddler through a temper tantrum?
Here are a few strategies that can help you:
1. The best tantrum is the one that never happens.
Prepare your toddler before you go out. Remind them before you leave, that you aren’t buying them anything, that you have a few things to get, and incentivize their good behavior beforehand. (“If you behave, we’ll make some cookies when we get home,” or “I’ll read your favorite book to you,” or “We’ll watch some PBS Kids.”) This will help them to defer gratification and hopefully make your shopping easier.
2. Remain calm.
This may be easier said than done. When your child is losing it, as a parent you have to remain calm. Often we contribute to the intensity of the tantrum by escalating it because of our feelings of anger and embarrassment. Now is not the time to be concerned about what those people around you are thinking. It doesn’t matter what they think about your parenting. It matters how you parent your child. Keep your focus on your child and not on a bunch of people that you may never see again. Remember, you can handle this and it is normal and natural for a toddler to have a temper tantrum.
3. Assess the situation. (Create a mental game plan.)
Now that you have taken a couple of deep breaths and are calm, do a quick mental checklist:
Are they hungry?
Did they miss their naptime?
Are they not feeling good?
Did you make changes to your normal routine?
Are YOU stressed and overwhelmed?
Maybe there is no reason at all except they are toddlers.
However, if you can pinpoint the triggering factor, such as your toddler being hungry, bringing or getting them a small snack can allow them to calm down at least until you finish this errand. If they are tired, it may be in your best interest to get them home as soon as possible. If they are angry because you said “no” to something they wanted—be the parent.
4. Focus on your child.
With your game plan in mind, focus on your child. Find a quiet space in the store, if possible—if not, offer to go to the car to calm down. (Leave your cart with an employee and tell them you will hopefully be right back.) When you get to the car—look your child in the eye, speak softly and calmly, and empathize with them. (Ahh, you really are tired; I know, you are hungry.) Then give them directions. This may be the time to throw in an incentive. (When we go back to the store, if you behave, when we get home we’ll have a snack before naptime.) You are laying the groundwork for important child development pieces like learning to control their emotions, learning to defer gratification, and learning mom means business.
5. If you have a very sensitive child…
It may seem more difficult to deal with tantrums when you have a “sensitive child.” No matter the temperament of your child, it is fine to have appropriate behavioral expectations of them. It is important to remember that children respond differently to correction. For some, it only takes “that look”—others require more. The goal of discipline is to teach. A slight deviation from the normal routine could really send a sensitive child into orbit. Being keenly aware of your child’s temperament (and your own emotional state) is vital for effectively dealing with a tantrum.
You have made it through your toddler’s public tantrum.
Was it hard? Maybe. Will it happen again? Probably. I love the saying, “Once you have gone through something, you know how to go through something.”
Become a student of your child. Now is the time to think about ways to prepare for the next toddler temper tantrum. Keep snacks in your bag. Either go alone or wait until after naptime. Go to the store when it’s not really crowded.
Parenting is a HARD job, especially with toddlers. You may feel frustrated, anxious, distressed, positive, satisfied, and overwhelmed all in the SAME DAY, even on the SAME TRIP. There is no parenting handbook that has all the answers for every situation, contrary to what those judgy people in the store believe. As parents, we are not perfect, and neither are our kids. Our children don’t need Perfect Parents. They need Present Parents. Parenting a toddler is just one stage in your parenting journey. All you can do is try to do your best to meet the needs of your children for where they are developmentally.
Constantly putting yourself down is of no benefit to anyone. Practice self-care. Be careful what you say to yourself because you will believe it. Make time for yourself. Take a bath. Go for a walk. Talk to friends. In the words of flight attendants, “Put your mask on first, then help others.” We are so busy making sure everyone around us is okay, we often neglect to care for ourselves. This has a huge impact on our children—they can pick up on our stress and frustration. Be your best self so you can be at your best for your child, wherever and whenever.