You are not alone! At some point, almost every parent must deal with their child having a major meltdown in a public place. This is a typical developmental stage – every child goes through the “tantrum phase” – and as a parent, you can influence these behaviors in the way you respond. The following are some proactive and reactive strategies and tantrum tips to help you get through this frustrating yet typical part of growing up:
Proactive Strategies (how to prevent the behavior from occurring):
• Listen to the behavior! Behavior is a form of communication, so you must “listen” to it. Pay attention to why your child is having a tantrum. Most likely, it is because your child is trying to get something (e.g. your attention, a toy) or they are trying to get out of something (e.g. trying on clothes, leaving a store). Whatever you do, try not to give in to the behavior. If they are throwing a tantrum to get a toy, DO NOT give the toy or negotiate for another one. Similarly, if they are throwing a tantrum because they don’t want to try on clothes, DO NOT let them out of it. You can, however, lower the expectations. For example, have them try on one shirt before leaving the store. After you are consistent with listening and responding to the behavior appropriately, the tantrums will decrease on their own over time.
• Practice makes perfect! Every week, set a goal for your child. For example, “This week, we are going to practice eating at restaurants. If you follow the rules, you can earn something special at the end of the week.” Create a visual list of rules and review them prior to entering the establishment. You can even make a personalized “rule book” with pictures of your children actually engaging the behavior expectations. Periodically, through the practice session, praise them for following the rules and refer to the “rule book”.
• Be realistic! Depending on your child’s age, you may have unrealistic expectations for them. For example, babies and toddlers make a mess at restaurants – they are in the developmental stage in which dropping things are really neat! Three- and four–year-olds have a difficult time waiting, so having your child wait while you get a 30-minute manicure is asking for trouble. If you know that your child will have to wait for a long period of time, however, be prepared with a “special travel bag” – keep items in the bag that the child only has access to when they are out and about (e.g.portable DVD player, Nintendo DS, books, small portable games).
Reactive Strategies (how to respond after the behavior has already occurred):
• Embrace the behaviors! Every parent understands what you are going through. Yes, it may be irritating to hear a child screaming in the grocery store, but believe me, other shoppers feel your pain. Just simply smile and say to them, “I apologize. I’ll try to have this resolved in a few minutes”.
• Keep your cool! The more emotional you become, the more intense the tantrum will be and the longer it will occur. Your child responds to your behavior – if you stay calm and limit the amount of verbal interaction, he or she will follow suit. Simply state what you need your child to do: “Lizzy, I need you to use a quiet mouth, stand up, and use your words”.
• Keep your child and others safe! If your child is falling to the floor or throwing things, attempt to remove any items that may be harmful. Warn others to stay back. It is always best to not pick up your child and move them. If it is necessary to move your child, don’t be afraid to call security to help you if you are by yourself. Move your child to an enclosed space (e.g. your car) and wait out the tantrum. It is best to stay outside of the car if your child is trying to hurt you. Also, if you don’t have child safety locks, invest in them!
If the behaviors become too disruptive, you may need to cut your dinner, errands, or trip to Six Flags short. If you have more than one child and the other is behaving, promise them some special time without their sibling. If you have another adult to support you, he or she should take the disruptive child and deal with them appropriately while you stay with the child who is behaving.
If you ever get to the point where you feel like things are beyond your control, find a nearby Board Certified Behavior Therapist. The Therapist will help you devise a behavior plan specific to yours and your child’s needs and work with you and your child until that plan is accomplished.