Tempering the tantrum

It’s a parent’s nightmare: the public tantrum. Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development.

It’s a parent’s nightmare: the public tantrum.

Screaming, crying, wailing, stomping of feet. The disapproving stares of passers-by. A small being, 2 or 3 years of age has the adult in charge wanting to shrink away or disappear.

But the public tantrum can be avoided, and not by giving in to the demand for that new toy or the candy bar at the checkout. (That only ups the chance of another tantrum when a future demand is not met.) With some forethought and practice, a parent can drastically reduce the chance of the toddler having an all out meltdown in public.

Tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development and the result of frustration, for example, when a child cannot do what he wants to or have what he wants to have. Triggers for tantrums can be overstimulation, hunger, tiredness, sickness, boredom and lack of attention.

One key to avoiding a full-blown tantrum is to be able to recognize those triggers. It doesn’t make sense to take a child to the grocery store when it is his nap time. That is just setting a tired child up for losing it.

“Know your child’s signs,” said Amanda Nickerson, associate professor of School Psychology at the University at Albany. “Most people can identify the child’s triggers. Don’t take them out when they’re tired, irritable or hungry — or, take that into account,” she said. For example, if a child is going to be hungry, be armed with snacks.

Laying out expectations

Clifton Park mom Christina Gleason always makes sure that she brings water along when she takes her son grocery shopping with her so he won’t get thirsty, and they eat before they go.

Having reasonable expectations of your toddler can go a long way toward preventing tantrums. Tantrums happen because children do not yet know how to appropriately handle their frustration. Parents often expect a child to have the ability to control emotions, said Liz Roberts-Laura, a family specialist with Community Human Services in Burnt Hills.

“They can’t regulate their emotions, and we need to teach them how. They don’t have those tools in their toolbox yet,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that you can’t expect more from the child than the child is age-appropriately able to deliver,” she said.

Letting a child know what to expect on an outing is key to avoiding tantrums. Gleason combines an incentive with her preparation. “If we’re going to be out somewhere for an extended period of time, I make sure my son knows what is expected of him, and I may offer him a bribe,” she said. For example, if he can be quiet and not run around, he might be rewarded with a Popsicle, an extra book at bedtime or a chance to play a game together.

Roberts-Laura gives the example of going out to eat at a nice restaurant. Explain to the child that he is going to have to wait a little while for his food, and be prepared. Bring puzzles or crayons to keep him busy. She even advocates bringing a timer. “Set the timer for 15 minutes and say, ‘If our food isn’t there, we’ll walk around,’” she said. Take a walk, come back and do some more activities. Chances are, the food will be there by then. This is better than expecting a child to sit for an extended period of time waiting for his dinner.

Gleason always has toys and crayons in her purse for dinners out. When grandma comes along, she brings her calculator to occupy her grandson.

Practice outings

If a child is prone to tantrums, Roberts-Laura suggests having practice outings. Rather than taking them along for a full week’s grocery shopping, take them to the store when you have just a couple of items to buy.

Explain this ahead of time. Let them know that if there is a tantrum, everything will go back on the shelf and parent and child will go home. Create a consequence. Next time, the child will not be allowed to go to the grocery store.

“Kind of make a big deal about it,” Roberts-Laura said. “Say, ‘I’m going to the grocery store, and I wish you could go with me.’ There was a consequence, and you are following through.” The next time, invite the child along, reminding him that temper tantrums are not allowed in the grocery store.

Employing plain common sense can help. If a child is prone to temper tantrums, don’t plan the first dinner out at a nice restaurant. Start with a family-friendly diner or a fast-food joint and work your way up.

Parental calm

If a tantrum does happen in public, there are some strategies to use to handle it. The most important point is for the parent to stay calm. “It doesn’t help if a parent starts yelling or getting really upset,” Nickerson said. “That will just exacerbate the situation.”

Roberts-Laura gives the same advice. “The biggest thing for temper tantrums is to be the calm in their storm,” she said. “You can’t help them out of it if you’re yelling at them and getting as upset as they are.”

Recognize that the tantrum is a cry — literally — for help. “They’re out of control and they’re really saying, ‘Help me. I don’t know what to do,’ ” Roberts-Laura said.

When a tantrum hits, calmly bring the child to a quiet, private place, like the car, a hallway or another room, if possible, to give him a chance to calm down. Once they have calmed down, the talking can begin.

“Identify that the child was angry or frustrated, but let him know it’s not OK to kick or yell,” Nickerson said.

Roberts-Laura said that after the tantrum, a parent can talk to the child about what to do next time, for example, if they want something, use their words rather than screaming or kicking.

Mostly importantly, offer love. “When they’re melting down and having temper tantrums, they don’t feel good about themselves,” Roberts-Laura said. “This is their emotional crisis, and it is our job to help them out of that.”

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