Tantrums in public are many parents’ worst nightmare. Children have tantrums for numerous reasons – anger, embarrassment, exhaustion, big feelings, simple frustrated desires, and yes, occasionally power or manipulation. The larger issues of how to deal with a tantrum are going to depend on the circumstances, but there are some consistent messages and strategies that can help manage and reduce the incidences of public tantrums. If parents can keep their nerves from fraying, most tantrums provide opportunities for learning once the screaming subsides.
Before dealing with the specifics of a tantrum, quickly assess your location and surroundings. My companion article Managing Tantrums – First Steps offers thoughts on deciding when to relocate and when to stay put. Once you are in a location that is safe and allows you the chance to think and speak without interference or undue effect on others, it’s time to turn to a focus on communication.
It is tempting to keep all the focus during a tantrum on what the tantrum is about. But a child in the middle of a meltdown is not open to a teaching moment about toys or sharing or candy. A tantrum is ultimately an uncontrollable expression of emotion – most often anger, sadness or embarrassment. Being overtired makes it even more difficult to handle these emotions. Before the cause can be addressed, the “big feelings” that caused it need to me made manageable.
Here’s what I try to do when my kids melt down:
Connect – Asserting authority won’t stop a tantrum. Yelling at a child to stop crying or stop screaming or making threats isn’t likely going to help them feel more in control of their emotions. Instead of standing above them, get down to their level and show them you are trying to connect through a gentle touch, a hug, bringing them to your lap or other means. If they are physically pushing you away or flailing arms or legs, show them your willingness to connect and find a safe distance at their level.
Find the big feeling and acknowledge it – “I know you are tired and angry” or “I can see that you are really sad” is a great way to start a sentence during a tantrum. Acknowledging what started the tantrum can follow. “I know you are angry…you really wanted that red lollypop.” “I can see that it made you really sad when Johnny broke your toy.” Resist the urge at this point to start to tell them again why they can’t have the treat or that it was an accident. Empathize if that feels authentic to you – “I get really sad too when things I love get broken.”
It is hard to stay open to the idea that there is any validity to a tantrum when a child is screaming in your face, but taking a moment to try to SEE the child is important. Approaching them with respectful words and a calm voice in the face of something that makes you unhappy also models good skills and sets you up for the next step in Managing Tantrums – Focus on Communication.