Friday, March 16, 2012


A public tantrum is one of parent’s most dreaded moments. A mother who called me for advice recently told me that every time she takes her child to the store he has a tantrum. The answer seemed obvious. Don’t take your child to the store.  I know this wasn’t the response she was looking for; but the point to be taken away from my two cent answer was: if you can learn the ways to prevent the tantrum from occurring in the first place, you won’t have to deal with the tantrum. Preventive discipline is one of the most powerful tools in a parent repertoire. Instead of waiting for the storm and react, usually out of frustration, prevent the problem to happen all together.

However, leaving the kids at home for shopping and errands isn’t always an option. Therefore, make sure you and they are prepared for the situation. Here are some tips:

·        Make sure you go with clear and realistic expectations. Explain to your child what you are going to be doing and where you are going. Tell him when you will eat, or when he will be able to play so they know what to expect.  Be specific about what behavior is expected. Telling them to be a good boy is too vague. For example, “we are going to a place where we will have to walk and stay close to mommy and we will have to use an inside voice”. Always tell them what TO do instead of what NOT to do. Providing them with the tools to behave makes life easier. 

·        Always feed your kids before going out and be prepared with snacks. A hungry child is a recipe for disaster.  Also, be sure your kids are not tired. Taking them out after a nap is always easier.

·        Plan short outings rather than long ones. 15-20 minutes of a successful experience are much better than 1-2 hours of a disaster.

·        Allow some extra time. If you are running against the clock, it will be very difficult to avoid and prevent problems. If your child has difficulty in public, each outing should be a training experience. It is not about the groceries, it is about teaching your child appropriate behaviors in public. Do groceries “for real” when your child is at school or somebody can take care of him.

·        Whenever possible, get some help. Being alone with your 3 kids is a recipe for failure. The ideal adults-kids ratio is 1:1.    

·        Big stores like Target and shopping malls can be overwhelming. Some children get over-stimulated from all the people, lights, colors and smells.  Children don’t like, and sometimes they can’t, standing in line, being quiet or still. Allow them some time to run around between stores. Do not plan on going to the mall or store at rush hours and avoid overcrowded places as much as possible.

·        Motivate your child to behave by providing an incentive when the shopping is done, such as a trip to the park or an ice cream. When a desired activity follows an undesired activity, a child’s motivation to behave is increased.

·        Even with the best preparation, something still might set your child off and a public meltdown may be unavoidable.  Watch for the signs that your child may be unraveling, and be sure you have a “Plan B” just in case. Perhaps you have to leave the cart full of groceries or walk out of the checkout line. Often this involves taking your child for a walk or to the car until he calms down. This is usually the hardest part for parents. It is frustrating to leave a fully-loaded shopping cart, but this is the only way to extinguish tantrum behaviors for the long term. If you can follow through once or twice, your child will quickly learn that you mean business and won’t attempt a tantrum to get what he wants. Remind him of the rules and expectations, and try again. If it does not work, be ready to go back home.

·        Validate your child’s feelings and remind him of the expected behaviors and rewards. Be very specific and clear. For example, “I know you are mad; but if you use a quiet voice and remain standing, you can earn your treat”. Help your child to communicate his feelings. “Active listening” can help calm your child down by decreasing his frustration: you are showing him that you understand and respect his feelings. You can help your child by modeling the words for him to use. For example, “I know you are mad at me because I won’t buy you a candy bar.!” If possible, encourage your child to express his feelings “Tell me ‘I’m mad Mommy”. 

·        Always provide praise for good behaviors. As parents we focus too much on scolding or punishing our kids for bad behavior but we forget to reward the good ones. Catch them being good. If your child is standing patiently in line, even for a few seconds, use it as an opportunity to praise him for the good behavior.

·        If your child is upset, try distracting him with humor, act silly or change the topic of conversation to something your child is looking forward to, such as a weekend trip to Grandma’s. Redirecting your child’s focus of attention is sometimes enough to calm the storm.

·        In any case, the most important thing a parent can do during a tantrum is to remain calm. This can not be stressed enough. Children are like little sponges that absorb your anxiety. If you lose control while the child is throwing a tantrum, expect it to feed the tantrum. Encourage your child to vent his feelings and modeled coping skills; for example “You are so mad, it will help you to stamp your feet or take a deep breathe like this”. This is another way to validate the child's anger and frustration and will help him to feel understood. By remaining calm and demonstrating to your child the appropriate way to behave, you set a positive example and teach an important life-skill: Self-Control. 

·        Do not, out of embarrassment or frustration, succumb to your child's demands, no matter how fierce the fit. Young children learn quickly just how loud and long they have to scream to get what they want. If you feel embarrassed you can modestly apologize to the people around you and say something like "Sorry, we are having a rough day"; but your focus should be on your child. Remember, you probably will never see those people again, but you will have to live with your child and future shopping trips for years to come. Following through WILL help prevent future tantrums and will make your life easier in the long run.

·        Remind your child of the limits, for example “I understand that you’re mad but you can not have a candy bar right now”. If this is a limit you have set, make sure you see it through to the end. Follow-through and consistency are keys in extinguishing bad behaviors.

This process gets easier with time. With consistent implementation of these strategies your children know the consequences. Then usually a few reminders are enough to control their behavior. And you will be so happy!

 Daniel Adatto, MA, BCBA

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