Tantrums In Public

Written By:  Allison Genovese M.S. ABA, BCBA, LABA

We have all been there.  Standing in the middle of a department store trying to stay calm when your child is laying sprawled out on the floor, screaming louder than a fire alarm, all because you said “no” to purchasing another batman figurine that would likely be forgotten about, even before you arrive home!

So, what do you do?  Breathe? Yes, that sounds good.  Cry?  Maybe.  Walk away and pretend that ill-behaved child is not yours?  Tempting, but no.  Give in and get that silly toy because you would pay anything at this point to avoid this public embarrassment?  Sounds better by the second but you know if you do it this time, this horror show will likely occur every time you go out.  Pick up your wailing child in defeat, put down the items you were hoping to purchase, walk out of the store with your head held low and pretend to not see those eyes looking at you?  Yup, we have all been there.

While this experience is somewhat of a rite of passage for new parents and not completely avoidable, there are some simple steps you can take to decrease the likelihood of it happening; as well as some good tips to give you the confidence to come out of it unscathed should you find yourself in that situation.

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The best way to deal with tantrums in public? Don’t! 

Before you take your child out in public make sure he or she is well rested, well fed and knows the expectations of both the outing and his or her behavior.

Skipping naptime to take a quick trip to the grocery store instead=not ideal!  Although it is often tempting to run that one extra errand, think twice about it if you know your child is getting tired and hungry.   The errand that was supposed to take 2 minutes can quickly take 20 if it ends in a meltdown.  So, if possible just head home, regroup and revisit later in the day.  You won’t regret it!

Setting clear expectations is key but often something we all forget to do.  In today’s world, we are rushing around without thinking twice. You go into auto-pilot as you strap your child in and head to the local pharmacy.  However, your child’s active imagination may be thinking they are on their way to an amusement park and you can bet that when they arrive somewhere else the tears will come too!  So, it is key to remember to take the minute to explain to your child where you are going, what you are going to do when you get there, how long you will be there, what you expect them to do when you say it is time to go, and the overall expectations for their behavior while out.  Consider putting a small sticker or note on your steering wheel or front door as a reminder.

Practice makes perfect: 

There are definitely some triggers when it comes to tantrums in public. One common trigger is denied access.  This can be in the form of being told “no” when they pass something they want in a store or being told “no” when they ask to go somewhere else (like the toy aisle).  If you identify these as triggers for your child, then practice and work on them in more controlled and comfortable situations like your own home!  Talk about it, set clear expectations for when your child will or will not get to choose an item from a store, and role play.  Reinforce your child when they meet the expectations-something as simple as praise, a hug from you, high-fives or maybe even a sticker, depending on your child’s preference.  Make it fun!  Once they are doing well with it at home, try it out in public-pick a small, uncrowded place to start then once your child is doing well, you are ready to conquer the real-world situations!  Bring it on Chucky Cheese!

Another common trigger is that dreaded 4-word phrase, “It’s time to go”!   No one likes to leave a favorite place but it is part of every single outing.  So, to avoid the bye-bye break down, first, give your child a warning of 1-5 minutes prior to leaving a preferred place.  This gives them time to try take one last turn or finish up their current activity.  It also gives them time to process what is coming next.  The next step is sticking to it. If you say it, you have to do it, otherwise it is very confusing when sometimes 5 minutes means an hour and other times it means 5 seconds.  Set a timer on your phone if that helps them follow through.  When the time is up, it’s time to go, simple as that.  As mentioned above, practice this at home first and then at small public places where you will not be scrutinized if it ends with you carrying your crying child out.  Identify reinforces for when your child successfully leaves an area and also try to plan your schedule accordingly.  Is your child leaving the awesome museum to get the flu shot?  You can pretty much bank on a tantrum here.  Instead, try to get less preferred activities out of the way first, or at least not scheduled directly after something really preferred.

Divided attention can also be to blame for those public breakdowns.  Does your child jump to hysterics when your attention shifts from her every word to having a conversation with the neighbor you ran into at the post office?  Once again, this is a skill that can be worked on when at home by setting the expectation for what your child should do when you are talking to someone else. You can teach them how to get your attention appropriately (“excuse me!”) and then role play a bit.  This is a tough concept for most kids to grasp, especially first born and only children who truly believe the world revolves around them-because it does!  Just keep in mind, if your child cannot consistently tolerate divided attention at home, they won’t miraculously be able to do it in public without a little work first.

Ok so the moment of truth is upon us.  Despite your best efforts and working on everything mentioned above, you are here, in the middle of the department store with your screaming child thrashing and bawling on the floor beside you.  What do you do?

  1. Quickly assess the situation:  Why is he or she doing this?
    1. Is it because you said no or used the above mentioned 4-word phrase, “It’s time to go”?
      • If so, follow through. No means no and there is no backing down now.  Doing so would simply reinforce this behavior which would make it more likely to happen again and again. So, gather your screaming child, restate the expectations calmly and walk past that coveted batman toy and don’t look back.  If it is in response to having to leave, pick up your child and leave.  Do not let this behavior delay having to leave.
    2. Is it because you are talking to that neighbor you unexpectedly ran into?
      • Finish your sentence-even If you child has quickly transformed to a puddle on the ground. Remind your child of the correct way to get your attention and do not let that tantrum be the way he or she reclaims your undivided attention.
    3. Is it because your child does not want to be there? He was finished with the grocery store the moment you walked in the door!
      • This one takes some courage. It is important that your child’s behavior does not become their way of getting to leave places they do not want to be, so you have to ride this one out.  Make it clear that you are leaving on your terms, when you are done doing what you need to do and not because of their behavior. Keep your head held high as you walk through the aisle with your child screaming in the cart, smile at those who may be staring… chances are they have been in your shoes before and are just happy it is you and not them…this time!  Do not get discouraged and trust that by enduring this you are likely decreasing the odds that this will happen again in the future.
    4. Is it because despite your best intentions that meal or nap was skipped and now your child is hungry and tired?
      • It’s ok, it happens to the best of us. You played the odds but in the end, you lost this one.  Your child is beyond being reasoned with and the best option is to accept defeat, pack up and head out as quickly as you can.  The priority is meeting your child’s needs.

Dealing with tantrums in public is not easy no matter how you slice it, so the best approach is always trying to set your child up proactively to have a successful outing.  When best intentions fail, as they sometimes do, remember to stay calm and choose the correct approach for the situation.  You will be surprised how much easier it is to deal with a public tantrum when you feel prepared and confident in your approach versus helpless and defeated.








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