By Lisa Murphy
The plank. The rag doll. The screech. Whatever way it manifests, a toddler’s public tantrums are widely feared and experienced by just about every parent at one time or another. Often the reactions of the people around you—tsk-tsking old ladies and eye-rolling childless couples—are even worse than your daughter writhing on the floor by the chocolate bars you won’t let her eat. Stay calm and positive. “Tantrums are the toddler version of a power struggle,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto psychotherapist, mother and author of Breaking the Good Mom Myth (Wiley). She argues that it’s developmentally appropriate for one- and two-year-olds to want more control, and that by empowering them we can actually head off public tantrums—or at least shorten them.
step 1 empower your child with choices
“Often we just drag them off to the mall and they don’t know how long you’re staying,” says Schafer. This kind of thing drives toddlers nuts. Instead, let your child know when and where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. Ask if there’s a book she would like to bring, or if there’s a store she would like to visit. Then acknowledge any good behaviour. “It’s about being proactive and modelling co-operation,” says Schafer.
2 acknowledge their needs
“You can’t effectively negotiate with a child who is tired, hungry or very sad,” says Rob Stringer, a teacher, and parenting and life coach in Hamilton, Ont. Don’t schedule public outings during regular nap times, and keep healthy snacks in your bag at all times. Mike Fraser, a father of two in Toronto, learned this the hard way after his 18-month-old had a mortifying meltdown in Old Navy. “We ran to the cash and paid without trying anything on,” says Fraser. “After eating a muffin, she was like a different person.”
3 don’t pull out the big guns right away
Consider the smallest thing you can do to be effective when a public tantrum looms. “If my child is throwing french fries, I can take them away,” says Schafer. Don’t jump straight to threats to leave the restaurant, she says.
4 respect the feelings, not the tantrum
“While my older kids play ringette, my 20-month-old, David, loves to grab a stick,” says Halifax mom Jennifer Hubley, who tries to pry the potential weapon from his pudgy grasp before he starts swinging. “When he loses that stick, he turns red and falls to the floor screaming.” Schafer recommends pulling out a book or phone and asking your child to let you know when he’s done. “Don’t try to calm, hug or soothe—all of that fuels the tantrum,” she says. “No child is going to carry on without an audience.”
5 don’t cave, ever
Tantrums are about getting what they want, says Lynn Caskie, a mother of three in Mississauga, Ont. “I’ve given them other things, but never, ever the one thing that they wanted while they were having a tantrum about it.” If kids see that meltdowns meet their needs, agrees Schafer, they’ll do it again, even if it takes hours.
6 Thank “helpful” bystanders for their advice
These Nosy Parkers actually give you an opportunity to send your child a positive message that, hopefully, he’ll hear over his own wailing, says Schafer. “Smile and say, “Thank you, but I know Jonathan’s quite capable of calming himself—I can wait.”
7 bail, if necessary
Stringer has abandoned his cart in mid-shop when his sons’ “tiredness tantrums” showed no signs of abating. “I was already past my kids’ lunchtime ““ I had exceeded their limits,” he says.
8 offer an olive branch
Once your child has calmed down, defuse the tension. Schafer suggests phrases like, “I don’t want a fight, would you like a hug?” or “How can we work this out?” If your child is having tantrums often, you might want to consider your own role. Are your fiery reactions fanning the flames? Is it really so bad if Griffin wears his pyjamas to the mall or holds the crackers in the cart?
Toronto writer and mom of two, Lisa Murphy, has survived a tantrum (or two hundred) in her time.