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7 Tips to stop temper tantrums in public

When a toddler throws a tantrum at home, you can remove him to another room, walk away, or simply ignore the whole thing. But when you’re out and about — and under the watchful gaze of other not-quite-helpful parents — it’s a lot harder to figure out what to do. We’ve got some tried and true suggestions.

Toddler girl having tantrum

Every mother occasionally finds herself wishing no other children were at the park. Because other children bring their own toys, bikes, shovels — and parents. And then your child wants to use the bike, the other child says no, your child breaks down in a fit, and the other parent watches disapprovingly as you attempt (unsuccessfully) to reason with your three year old.

As much fun as this scenario sounds, let’s work on ways to avoid it.


 Start off smart

Some careful prep work can head off some tantrums before they start. When you’re at home, role play different scenarios. Give kids a chance to practice responding to various situations. For example, if your tot has his eye on a cool toy that happens to belong to a child who isn’t keen on handing it over, what could your child do or say? Work through a few options, and stress that not everyone will share. Consider having your child bring a toy of his own.

 Set expectations early

It’s also important to set expectations before you leave the house. “We’re going to the store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. We are not going to buy a toy.” Have your child repeat the information back to you, and keep discussing it. “We are not going to buy a toy. Jack is not going to scream or cry. Are you going to scream or cry?”
Lots of repetition will help make your point, as will having your child rephrase your words back to you.

  quotation mark open Remember that strangers are just that — strangers. They don’t really matter. Anyone who actually has kids is just saying a silent prayer that it’s you in the hot seat today. The judgmental ones? Who needs them? Put them out of your mind, and concentrate on your kid. quotation mark close


Be prepared

If you know all the other moms bring snacks to the park, pack something for your child to munch on. Don’t drag your child on a three-hour Target run and expect him to stay cheerful and serene the whole time with no reward. And don’t take your kids to a restaurant that will make you wait over an hour for your appetizers.

Be clear about your rules

If you’re making an exception to a rule, be clear about what you’re doing. For example, if you never buy ice cream in the park, but you’re choosing to do so today to celebrate a successful potty run, say so explicitly. “We don’t usually buy ice cream here, but today is different. Today we are buying ice cream because you used the potty! Today is different and special. Tomorrow we won’t buy ice cream, but today we are.”

Ignore judgemental strangers

You prepped, you planned — and somehow it didn’t work out right. Now you’re stuck in the middle of a store with a screaming child, a cartful of groceries, and a crowd of unfriendly eyes watching your every move. What do you do?

First off, remember that strangers are just that — strangers. They don’t really matter. Anyone who actually has kids is just saying a silent prayer that it’s you in the hot seat today. The judgmental ones?

Who needs them? Put them out of your mind, and concentrate on your kid.   Also, remember that although we generally think everyone is watching us, most people are actually far more self-centered and are too busy thinking about themselves to focus on anyone else.  

Now, if you’re not in a rush, take your child to a relatively quiet area of the store and park him on the floor, in the cart, in a chair, wherever. Sit or stand nearby and pull out your cell phone, a book, or anything else that you can focus on (or pretend to) for a few minutes. Ignore your child, and do not respond until he stops screaming. Do not make excuses for his behavior, do not apologize for having a child, and feel free to make snide comments to anyone who feels the need to comment on your parenting. Remember, they are not your problem.  

Eventually your child will calm down, and you can give him a choice: either we finish this trip properly, go home and have some sort of treat, or we pay now, go home, and he spends an hour in his room.

Don’t give in

But what if you have to finish your shopping? Then do it. To the extent possible, ignore your child. Do not respond, and do not give in to the temptation to say, “Stop whining!” If you have an iPod, put it on. Channel your inner Zen master and focus on not hearing your child.

“Tantrums become a problem when parents give in to the child too soon or too often, teaching the child that a tantrum is an effective way to get what they want,” says Diane Ryals, University of Illinois Extension family life educator. So don’t. Do what you need to do, get your child out to the car or back home, and let him know how disappointed you are.

Be consistent

As long as you handle tantrums effectively at home — that is, by ignoring them and not giving in — they’ll eventually lessen when you’re out and about. Although it seems difficult to believe now, there will come a day when you’ll actually ask your teenager to join you on an outing. Until then, stay strong, and you can have some ice cream when you get home.

related video

Prevent Temper Tantrums Before They Start

Your boss has invited you and your family out for dinner, but you decline for fear that your child will have one of his outbursts in public.  Stop limiting your social life because of your child’s behavior and learn how to stop their temper tantrum before it starts.

For more tips on taming tantrums:

  • Stress free parenting: Tantrums and meltdowns
  • Baby tantrums: How to respond
  • How to discipline in a public place
  • See all of our articles on parenting toddlers

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