How to deal with tantrums in public more effectively

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Everyone is afraid of tantrums in public. What to do? Worry about the child or about what others think of you? This is a wonderful article from Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting on how to resolve such problems peacefully and without too much stress for yourself and your kids. Because they come first and everyone else can wait.

“Would your child be better behaved in public if you were a more authoritarian parent? Maybe. But we know that parenting style doesn’t encourage healthy development and it only lasts for as long as you can physically control your child. Of course you need to set limits with your child, whether that’s about jumping on Grandma’s couch or running through a restaurant. But you can set limits without resorting to punishment. Instead of threatening kids with consequences if they don’t behave, why not help your child become the kind of person who understands what behavior is appropriate, and who wants to behave that way?

Here’s how.

1. Tend to basic needs. Be pre-emptive. Don’t take a tired, hungry child anywhere. Even if you’re going to a meal, assume your child will be hungry before the food is served and bring snacks. If you’re in the grocery store, head first to the foods you will let her eat, and choose something for her to snack on while you shop. Before you walk into Grandma’s, let your child run and roughhouse for a few minutes, and pour your love into him while he giggles.

2. Prepare your child. Explain, even to a baby, what will be happening. Describe what you will do, and any expectations you have for your child’s behavior. (“At Grandma’s we hold hands and say a blessing, like this. During the blessing, only the person who is offering the blessing speaks. The rest of us will be quiet.”)

3. Invite your child to contribute positively. Describe the situation and explore with your child what kinds of contributions would be helpful. “At the restaurant, the waiters are rushing around balancing food. How can we help them do a good job and not spill things?” As you discuss visiting the grandparents, practice hellos and goodbyes so your child is more comfortable with those often-tricky greetings.

4. Remember your first responsibility is to your child. When your child is screaming on the airplane and all eyes are on you, naturally you want to control your child to keep her quiet, even if control isn’t your usual approach. And yes, the other passengers on the plane have a right to a flight that isn’t dominated by your little hellion. But focusing on them will just undermine your ability to help your child, and until you help her with whatever problem is causing her to scream, she will probably keep screaming. The truth is, the other passengers are much less interested in judging you than in having a quiet flight.

5. Be aware that you’re always teaching. When your child screeches “But I WANT the candy, I NEED it!” of course you acknowledge how much she wants it. But that doesn’t mean you buy it, unless you want to buy it every time. Instead, you empathize and redirect her longing toward a food you feel good about her eating. She might screech the first four times, or even have a good cry in your arms that necessitates your leaving the store. Eventually, she will learn through experience that you don’t buy the candy, but instead you’ll buy her any fruit she wants.

An airplane, though, or any situation where you can’t leave, is obviously not the time to let her have a good cry. So forget about long-term development (that’s why you keep situations like planes and restaurants to a minimum) and go for distraction. If she wants to get up and run during takeoff, empathize: “You want up! It’s hard to wait.” Tell her when she can get what she wants: “As soon as the plane is in the air, you can get up!” Then distract: “Look! we”re taking off! The plane is going up!” Or pull out a special small toy you brought just for this moment, “Look, a surprise! What’s in it?”

6. Stay present to your child. Often when children “act out” in public or when they’re visiting relatives, it’s because they feel our attention is elsewhere. That makes them a bit insecure, so they act out to get the reassurance that we’re still attending to them. For instance, if you expect to spend the plane flight relaxing, you can count on your child needing to interact with you fairly constantly. The more we can stay connected with a child, the less he will act out, always.

7. Start with Empathy before you problem solve. “You seem pretty mad…What’s going on?…I see….I wonder how we can solve this?”

8. Find ways to honor or redirect your child’s impulses. “You want to run! Let’s run outside the store for a few minutes before we go in, since you’ve been sitting in the car. Then, in the store, let’s walk THIS way!”

9. Don’t hesitate to remove him if necessary. If your child has a meltdown, it’s impossible to attend to him and also finish your shopping. Just scoop him up and remove him from the situation. Maybe you can go to your car, or to an out of the way spot at the mall where you won’t be disturbing other people. Just as important, you won’t be tempted to parent as onlookers think you should, so you can follow your own instincts.

As always, empathize with how upset he is: “You want to run around the aisles, but I need you to stay in the cart. It’s hard to stay in the cart.” Feeling understood usually calms kids. When he’s done crying, hold him and comfort him. If he’s still awake, decide if the two of you are up for another try, and if so, how it can work for both of you “Maybe for the last bit of shopping, you can walk next to me and help me find things, and then sit in the cart again at the checkout?” There’s no shame in your child’s needs clashing with the household need to get food in the house. The shame is in responding to that clash by becoming a parent you don’t want to be.

10. Assume the support of your audience. In the same way that audiences root for performers to succeed, the people watching want you and your child to succeed. They know kids can be unpredictable and unreasonable. They may assume the situation would get resolved faster if you did it their way, but imagine how impressed the grandparents will be when they see your son pull himself together because you’ve empathized “Oh, Sweetie, you really wish you could have another cookie, I know! Tell me how many cookies you would like to eat? 10,000?! Oh my goodness, would you be as tall as the sky then?”

And what about the times when, inevitably, you’re embarrassed about the way your child is behaving? You will probably want to have a quiet conversation with the grandparents at some point to explain why your parenting philosophy is going to raise them wonderful grandchildren, and why punishment won’t. But those strangers in the grocery store? You’ll never see them again. Smile ruefully and say “Sometimes we all have bad days.” Nobody can disagree with that.”

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