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How To Handle Public Toddler Temper Tantrums

How you parent your child matters more than what others may think about how you parent your child.

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.

Image from Unsplash.com

Did you know…

  • Babies can hear three months before they are born?
  • 80 percent of a child’s brain growth happens in the first three years?
  • On average, the ratio of reprimands, warnings or scolding to praise or encouragement is 12 to 1 for children in low-income families?
  • A major study showed that by age 2, less-advantaged children were six months behind the highly-advantaged in language processing skills?

During a visit to Chattanooga, Dr. Ron Ferguson, adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and faculty director of the Achievement Gap Initiative (AGI) at Harvard, shared these facts as he talked about an initiative he launched in Boston. His goal is to help parents engage with their young children and reduce the skill gaps that become apparent between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds by age 3.

“Looking at the research, I realized a lot of the gaps we struggle to address once children are older are evident by the age of 2,” says Ferguson. “We know we are never going to reach everybody through standard programs because capacity is limited, but imagine what could happen if everybody in the community felt a sense of ownership to do their part in helping children thrive.”

The initiative focuses on five evidence-based parenting and caregiving principles which are scientifically proven ways to promote brain development in young children. Moreover, the initiative is designed so every parent, caregiver, family member, friend or citizen can use and share it.

Here are the principles:

  • Maximize Love, Manage Stress. Infants thrive when their world seems loving, safe and predictable. When you express love and respond to their needs, they learn that they can count on you. Showing love and responding helps children learn to manage their feelings and behavior. Feeling secure in their relationships gives them the confidence to explore, learn and take on life’s challenges.
  • Talk, Sing and Point. From birth, babies are learning language. Initially, speech is just sound to a newborn. Day by day, they learn that sounds have meaning. This process depends on how much people talk to them. Talking, singing or pointing to what you are talking about provides clues to the meaning of your words. You are providing important information to their brains about how language works. As your child develops, talking with them and answering their questions teaches them about the world.
  • Count, Group, Compare. Becoming good at math begins long before a child enters school. Even infants are wired to learn simple math ideas, including small numbers, patterns and making comparisons. You don’t need to be a math teacher to prepare your child to be a problem solver. You can do fun and simple activities now to build math and thinking skills.
  • Explore through Movement and Play. Movement and play are good for children’s bodies, their coordination, strength and overall health. This is how children explore and learn, too. Each stage of development brings new opportunities for learning. For example, an infant might explore by touching, grasping, chewing or crawling. A toddler might explore by walking or climbing. Young children are like scientists, curious and excited to explore.
  • Read and Discuss Stories. Reading with young children consistently prepares them to enjoy reading and to do well in school. It is never too early to begin reading! Stories expose children to words and ideas that they would not otherwise experience. Books teach children to use their imaginations, and what they learn about people, places and things can be important building blocks to future success. Reading together creates lasting memories.

Research shows this type of support for early brain growth is a key to stimulating the start in life that all infants and toddlers deserve. It is also the foundation of kindergarten readiness.

Imagine what the greater Chattanooga region would be like in 2026 if, as a community, everyone practiced these caregiving principles with the children in their sphere of influence. In the meantime, plans are already in the works to reach as many families as possible. The great thing is, everybody can be part of this initiative to close the achievement gap and help all of our kids get off to a great start.

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on September 11, 2016.

Teen Sex and the Brain

A teen's choices can impact them more than they realize.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether teen sex is really harmful over time.

Drs. Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush wrote Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. They say that casual sex during the teen and young adult years affects bonding later in life.

Imagine sticking some clear shipping tape to your sweater to remove lint. The first time you pull it off, it grabs fuzz and some hair. It’s still a little sticky, so you continue to use it. But eventually, the tape loses its stickiness.

Similarly, research indicates that sexual activity and having multiple partners hinders the ability to develop healthy, mature, and long-lasting relationships.

What does teen sex have to do with brain development? Probably more than you realize.

  • The prefrontal cortex is still developing until the mid-20s. This part of the brain is responsible for setting priorities, organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses. It also initiates appropriate and moral behavior.
  • During the teen years, sexual activity triggers chemical reactions within the brain that help shape it.
  • This brain transformation has a huge physical and psychological impact on all things sexual. A person’s decision-making ability, which comes from the highest center of the brain, can lead to the most rewarding sexual behavior. That is, unless premature and unwise sexual behavior during adolescence damages the brain’s formation for healthy decision-making.

Additionally, the authors sound the alarm concerning an apparent relationship between teen sexual activity and depression. 

Studies indicate that:

  • Sexually-active teens are three times are more likely to experience depression than their abstinent peers.
  • Sexually-active girls were three times more likely to have attempted suicide.
  • Sexually-active boys were seven times more likely to have attempted suicide than their virgin friends.

McIlhaney and Bush say that parents play a critical role in helping teens develop in a healthy way.

  • Surveys consistently show that teens primarily look to their parents’ advice about sex. Structure, guidance, and discipline from caring adults can positively mold the adolescent brain.
  • Teens need parental support as they take healthy risks, like learning to drive, trying out for sports, or going off to college. Activities like these help young people separate from their parents and grow as individuals.
  • If parents or other caring adults don’t guide their teens, their poor choices can negatively impact their future.

Although it may be complicated and uncomfortable, you can prepare your child for some genuine threats to their well-being. (For example, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and the emotional baggage of seeking to bond with multiple sex partners.) Taking these issues seriously and keeping the lines of communication open are essential to healthy relationships in the future.