Picture this: You're pushing your shopping cart into an aisle in the supermarket and you see an embarrassed mom trying to get her 5-year-old to stop wailing while lying spreadeagled on the floor.
As a bystander, you feel sympathy for parents caught in these situations. You might think to yourself, “I would never allow my child to act that way!”. Or you might hear someone mutter, “Get that kid under control!” while you navigate around the tantrum. But it's easier said than done.
Meltdowns and tantrums are signs of poor problem-solving skills. Some of this is to be expected and will get better as your child grows and learns how to regulate their emotions. In the meantime, how do you respond when your child acts out in public?
Know your child’s limits
Having a meltdown doesn’t always mean that a child is deliberately being naughty. Toddlers are still developing their ability to control their emotions. When they get overstimulated or tired, tantrums and meltdowns are common. Even older children can have trouble controlling their emotions — especially when they are exhausted or hungry. You know your child best. How much are they able to handle? A quick run to the grocery store is different than an afternoon at the mall. Shopping earlier in the day might go better than a trip right before dinner time. Can you get some of your errands done without bringing your child? As much as you can, recognise your child’s limits and plan accordingly.
Stay calm and focus on your child's needs
When your child is throwing a tantrum, take a deep breath and acknowledge that things are going to be very hard. Parents often feel pressured to make the tantrum stop immediately and when that doesn’t work, they feel embarrassed and out-of-control. As hard as it is, do your best to stay calm. Try to ignore everyone else around you and focus on what your child needs from you right now. If your child is really upset, you might need to offer guidance on how to calm down. For example, you can say, “I can hear you are really upset, but yelling at me is not going to help. Try taking some deep breaths.”
Be firm with your rules
The main thing to remember is that tantrums and acting-out behaviour should not result in a child getting their way. You don’t want your child to start bullying you into getting what he wants with the threat of embarrassing you with bad behaviour. To avoid drawing more attention than necessary to the situation, make your way to the exit and come back for your items later. If you can't leave the store right there and then, you might need to sit and wait out the meltdown. Model calm behaviour and direct your child towards the exit once he sees that his tantrum is not going to change your rules.
Community Ambassador; as someone who was raised in a rather privileged family, I hope to address the inequity in educational outcomes based on the circumstance of birth. Bounced around between Australia and Singapore a fair bit.