How To Survive a Tantrum in Public (Ages 3 and Up)

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Please comment below- How do you help your child calm down in public?

It’s just another day running errands.

I’m juggling a shopping list the length of my forearm, a wiggly child who is constantly touching things, and a purse that must have an anvil in it, judging by the weight.

I’ve barely walked into the store when we walk by the toy aisle. (Why do they put the toy aisle right by the doors so we have to walk by it every time??)

And the rest is history.

You all know the story. First come the begging and pleas, then the situation escalates to tears, and if it’s a bad day, we might even get some hitting, kicking, flailing on the floor, etc. 

Of course, I’m trying to calmly and logically explain:

  • all the ins and outs of money,
  • and how we have to work hard for it,
  • and how we don’t have a lot of it,
  • and how we don’t always get the things we want,
  • and how sometimes we have to wait and work hard before we can buy things.

And then Fit Hits the Shan.

She clenches her fists, then her whole body tenses. She is so uptight that she starts shaking all over. She releases all that tension in one blood curdling scream, then she sobs and falls to the floor, crying.

She refuses any help to calm down. If I try to pat her back reassuringly, she hits me. If I try to hug her, she pushes me away. If I try to hold her, she does the limp noodle thing.

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Even though it’s the same old thing I deal with every day at home, it’s so much worse in a public place!!

EVERYONE is watching…. I can just imagine their thoughts right now.

  • “What a terrible mom.”
  • “Is she seriously going to allow her child to act like that??”
  • “Can’t she do something about this?”
  • “That child needs some discipline.”

So…. What am I supposed to do????

1) Give the Child Some Privacy

My first step is always to find a quiet place to handle the problem. There’s two great benefits of this:

1- This gives the child some privacy to cope with their big feelings.

2-This puts me back in control by minimizing the embarrassment and getting me into a parenting mindset. 

person sitting in green grass lawn

Basically, the point here is that the attention from other customers makes me a little less suited for handling the situation because I’m distracted by my feelings of embarrassment. I’m not a good mom when I’m not focused on my child’s needs.

But that’s not all! The attention from other customers can make your child feel overstimulated, which makes it difficult to calm down. 

So trying to fix a major tantrum right in the middle of all the chaos of a packed grocery store or restaurant just doesn’t work.

The more things are going on, the harder it is to focus.

Find a quiet place.

  • That could be a bathroom in the store,
  • it could be an empty section of the restaurant or an empty aisle,
  • or it could mean walking back to your car for a break.

Sometimes it’s not possible to find a perfectly calm and peaceful location. In that case, go to the QUIET-EST place available to you… even if it’s not entirely silent. As long as you you and the child can focus a little better on the problem and on a solution.

2) Listen to the Signs My Body is Giving

Your body mirrors the chaos that is going on around you.

  • Your heart rate elevates,
  • your blood pressure rises,
  • your vagal tone increases,
  • your breathing becomes more rapid.

Watch for these signs in yourself because they keep you from feeling calm.

That’s why I always recommend the same super basic calming techniques, designed to help with these physiological responses to stress. 

  1. Count to 10 (this keeps you from reacting and gives you a chance to think),
  2. Take deep breaths (slowing your breathing slows your heart rate),
  3. Take a break (allows you to focus on your body and take the time needed to control your physiological reactions).

Only when I have control of my own body can I be effective at helping my child.

woman closing eyes white standing against stainless steel rail

I’ve found that these are great teaching moments too. If my little one sees me using deep breaths, she is more likely to try them herself. I can turn an unpleasant situation into a positive example for my daughter to learn from.

3) Meet the Need

Remember, your child’s behavior is a response to legitimate needs, wants, and feelings.

 Although tantrums are not effective ways to get something that your child wants, you have the chance to teach them a better way to meet their needs. 

The child is trying (unsuccessfully) to communicate with you. If you can help them do so in a positive way, then you’ll both benefit. Ask questions until you understand better what they need and what they feel.

  • Do they need to feel loved?
  • Do they need to feel understood?
  • Do they need to feel your empathy?
  • Are they hungry?
  • Are they tired?
  • Are they bored?
  • Are they overstimulated?

Model for your child how he or she can get what they want and need in a positive way.

shallow focus photography of two boys doing wacky faces

4) Don’t Reward Bad Behavior

We all know not to give a child a piece of candy to quiet a tantrum. After all, if someone gave me candy for acting poorly, I’d have tantrums too!

But it sounds like such a simple and easy solution!

If you really feel the pressure to give in to a tantrum, think of something very easy that the child can do to earn what they want rather than just giving it to them.

For example, let’s say the child wants a piece of candy, so he starts jumping up and down and yelling. Rather than just offering the candy (which would be rewarding them for having a tantrum), say “You can have a piece of candy if you ask nicely for one.”

In this way, the child is being rewarded for asking for the candy rather than being rewarded for having a tantrum.

Don’t teach a bad lesson without meaning to. Be intentional in your response! 


Check out these GREAT resources for parents and children! 

 Jilly’s Terrible Temper Tantrums: And How She Outgrew Them

You Get What You Get (Little Boost)

No More Tantrums (Big Kid Power)

Calm-Down Time (Toddler Tools)

The Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler’s Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again

Turning Tantrums Into Triumphs: Step-By-Step Guide To Stopping Toddler Tantrums

The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One- to Four-Year-Old: Revised Edition


5) Treat it Like Any Other Tantrum

All tantrums have the same rules. You can handle it at home, so you can handle it in public too! 

1-Think from the child’s perspective to see if there is an easy solution. Maybe the child is hungry? We can fix that! Maybe the child is bored? We can have races or he can write on the shopping list or he can help me spot the next item I need- anything to make shopping fun! Are we shopping right before nap time? Maybe I can change my schedule around to go at a different time.

2-Be conscious of the opportunity to teach the child something with this experience. Remember the values you want to teach and find a way to incorporate that into this situation.

girl covering her face with both hands

3-Don’t just react- be intentional in your parenting. Make sure you are calm and ready to handle the situation appropriately.

4-Follow through. Never give in to a tantrum. Rather, remind your child of an appropriate way that he or she can meet the need at the root of the tantrum. Help the child practice asking nicely or using effective communication.

6) Parents- Keep Trying!

The hardest step for me is to stop and think before I react to the situation.

I find myself thinking of better ways that I could have handled the tantrum after the fact.

But that’s ok because I find that I fail like 10 times in a row and then on the 11th time I remember. The only reason I remember is because I have thought 10 times of how I would like to handle the situation next time. All this repetition finally sticks in my head and the 11th time is successful.

So don’t get down- just keep preparing for next time until you remember.

7) Allow Your Child to Keep Trying Too!

There is one more step that I recommend to parents.

In all this, our overall goal is to help the child learn appropriate ways to cope with a situation that she doesn’t like– some sort of public activities like shopping or eating at a restaurant.

Of course, we have to be patient and give the child as much time as they need to learn those skills. Nobody learns a new skill overnight.

But it’s important to keep trying to teach a little more whenever the child is able to handle it- and that means returning to the situation. Yep, I’m saying to please bring your child back to the store sometime. It doesn’t have to be in the same day, or the next day.

But keep trying!

  • Give the child lots of heads up so that he knows what to expect,
  • remind the child of different ways that she can cope with being in the store,
  • and let her know that you’re on her side.
  • Try to set yourself up for success by taking care of the little things- make sure she’s not tired or hungry or bored.

Then give it another go! 

I like to empower children with a word or a sign that they are getting frustrated or overwhelmed. Then, we can take breaks from doing something they don’t like to do- and avoid a full blown tantrum. Even if the child cannot talk, this can be a great time to utilize infant signs, like “all done”.

Children get better and better with practice and patience. Don’t loose hope- you and your child will be better for your struggles! 

person wearing pink hooded jacket raising her hand in front of green mountain range during daytime

I hope these tools make you feel a little more prepared for your next day of running errands.

Keep up all your hard work as a parent and don’t fret about the small things.

Please comment below- How do you help your child calm down in public?

Sincerely,

Mrs. S

Share with any parent who has dealt with a tantrum in public!

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10 thoughts on “How To Survive a Tantrum in Public (Ages 3 and Up)

  1. You have some great tips here! It is really frustrating how they place items in mind for the child’s eye!
    One thing that worked really well for me when my kids were little was to discuss the shopping trip in advance and either give them a certain amount of money they could spend -thus an early real life lesson in budgeting, or to agree on something in advance -like special snack or something like this. It would be on the list. A lesson in planning and avoiding impulse purchases.
    Keep up your good work parenting!! It’s not easy!

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