How to deal with toddler temper tantrums in public

If you’re a parent, you’ve faced the dilemma of dealing with a child’s challenging behavior in public. And chances are there have been times when you wished that other parents would do something about their child’s behavior as well! How do we support our children with love and empathy while also considering the needs of others in the spaces and places we all share?

Certainly, sometimes a parent needs to ignore the judgment of others, especially when tending to a distressed child. We know that certain behaviors are age-appropriate – a 2-year-old who gets antsy during a meal at Commander’s Palace is par for the course. But doing nothing may not be the best response, depending on the setting – allowing said 2-year-old to race around the restaurant, on a collision course with servers.

 

Be prepared to leave if a child isn’t being cooperative

Years ago, I attended an evening performance of The Lion King when it arrived in New Orleans on tour. My family was excited because we had heard so many great things about the Broadway show. But sitting directly behind us were two parents and their toddler twins who cried, kicked seats and shrieked throughout most of the performance until the family finally left.

I was not annoyed with the children, who were basically acting how tired, squirmy and bored toddlers do. And I imagine the parents really thought their little ones would be entertained by the costumes, music and spectacle. Maybe Mom and Dad, needing a night out, wanted to see this show themselves and couldn’t find a sitter. But it was unfair to everyone sitting near them and definitely not the enjoyable family outing I’m sure they hoped for, either.

We all make these kinds of miscalculations sometimes, but one remedy is to set the stage for success by practicing prevention. Keep outings short, if possible, and have a few diversions on hand. Let a child know what to expect – many young children do better when there aren’t many surprises, and they know what specific behaviors are expected of them. And don’t forget to praise cooperative behavior.

 

Be kind and set limits

When you do need to deal with an upset little one, make eye contact, use gentle touch and acknowledge a child’s feeling. At the same time, set a limit you know you can enforce: “You’re frustrated you have to wait for the slide, it’s hard. But you may not push others out of the way. I’ll help you wait for your turn.” If the pushing continues, activate your exit strategy as calmly as you can, keeping in mind that angry threats and bribes may increase the stress level and make it harder for either of you to stay in control.

Children actually are relieved to know there are capable adults who will set reasonable limits on their behavior. And children whose parents talk about both their child’s feelings and the feelings of others (“Your friend was sad when you took her turn”) tend to grow into people with good social skills and high levels of empathy.

 

Focus on your child, not your phone

One factor that may prevent us from noticing when our children’s behavior may be affecting others is technology. A group of researchers observed 55 parents eating in fast food restaurants with children and noted that 40 spent time on a mobile device. The most phone-engrossed group of parents had children who tended to escalate behaviors, such as being loud or silly, until the parent responded harshly, either physically or with an angry rebuke. While children don’t need parents to hover and attend to them constantly, being present and engaged goes a long way to preventing some challenging behaviors.

So, when heading out with your family, think about how they will manage the errands of the day and give them the attention they need to be successful. Help your child have a variety of experiences, while he or she grows and learns how to be part of a community where everyone can enjoy being together.

 

Lisa Phillips is a Parent Educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information, call 504.896.9591, visit theparentingcenter.net or email [email protected]