How to successfully defuse your child’s public meltdowns

Don't try to talk to your child during a tantrum, they won't hear you, experts say.
Don't try to talk to your child during a tantrum, they won't hear you, experts say. Yosuke Suzuki / Getty Images

It can happen in a mall, a grocery store, a park – you name it. Temper tantrums can strike anywhere at any time and it’s a chaotic scene that leaves many parents feeling embarrassed, flustered and judged.

“We always say our kid never will [have a tantrum] and every kid does,” parenting expert Kathy Lynn says. “Parents are not often supportive of other parents. It’s amazing that if a child does have a meltdown in public, everybody around stares at the adult as if to say, ‘What are you going to do?’ and ‘Why are you causing this?” When they should instead be saying ‘That’s so tough.’”

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“I think parents feel really judged because when you’re parenting your child you’re doing a lot of that in public and you may be really conscious of people’s eyes on you,” parenting expert Ann Douglas adds. “But what I try to remind parents is that, sure – you do capture some people’s attention when you’re child starts screaming in the food court, but don’t assume that’s because they’re judging you or think you’re doing it wrong.”

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Despite whatever judging eyes may or may not be looking your way, however, it’s important to remember that it’s a scenario every parent has had to have dealt with at least once before, Lynn says.

The problem is, though, how does one successfully prevent and manage public emotional meltdowns with children? It’s a question many parents have, but few have the answer to.

This is what Douglas and Lynn suggest.

The Dos

First, calm yourself and then calm your child, Douglas says. Then you’ll find it easier to handle the situation in a way that you’ll feel good about later.

“This will help you keep your big picture parenting goals in mind as opposed to allowing yourself to worry about what other people are thinking about your child’s outburst,” Douglas explains.

Second, Douglas says, is ask yourself what your child needs from you in that moment.

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“Remind yourself that behaviour is communication and your job as this child’s parent is to try and decode that message and meet the underlying need,” she says.

Third, let your child know that their feelings make sense.

“Help them to find the words to express those emotions,” Douglas explains. “The mere act of feeling hurt and understood will help to calm them and then they won’t have to keep acting out so much just to express these emotions that may feel just too big and overwhelming.”

Remember to be kind, as well, Douglas says. Remind yourself that your child is doing the best they can with the skills they have right now and that they can build on those skills over time, Douglas says.

But perhaps most importantly, the best way to deal with a meltdown is by preparing ahead, Lynn says.

“Don’t ever take a kid shopping — which most kids don’t like — when they’re hungry or tired,” Lynn points out. “The minute you think your child will be OK, I guarantee you they won’t be.”

If you do take them, however, let them know what the plan is, Lynn advises.

“Let them know where you’re going, why you’re going and how long you’re going to be there and what you expect from them,” she says.

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And if a tantrum does ensue, Lynn says to try and remove the child to a quieter spot.

If that doesn’t work, the only thing left to do may be to let the tantrum run its course.”

The Don’ts

Don’t go for the quick parenting fix, Douglas says.

“Sure you can obtain a child’s compliance in the short-run by resorting to coercive and harsh parenting strategies like threatening a child but that can be at the expense of your child’s long-term well-being and the long-term health and quality of the parent-child relationship,” she says.

Also, don’t try to reason or talk to your child when they’re in the midst of a meltdown, both Douglas and Lynn say.

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In that moment, the child will not hear what you’re saying, Lynn says, and parents will just be wasting their breath and frustrating the child even further.

Instead, focus on calming them and address what they’re feeling and that will help the meltdown to wind down sooner rather than later, Douglas says.

Don’t give into their tantrums, Lynn adds. This means to not give them toys or candy to calm them down as they’ll see this as a means to get what they want, Lynn says.

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And most importantly, don’t feel overly embarrassed, Douglas says.

“Tantrums happen,” she says. “Instead of worrying about what other people are thinking, focus on what matters most which is helping your child to weather the storm and parenting in a way both you and your child can both feel good about.”

Lastly, never grab or hit the child, Lynn says.

Something to remember

If tantrums are frequent, they made be a sign of an underlying issue like mental health problems, a 2012 Northwestern University study says.

Although temper tantrums among preschoolers are common, they are not rampant, researchers say. In fact, less than 10 per cent of young children have a tantrum daily.

So if tantrums occur regularly, then it may be time to consult a health-care professional.