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4 Things to Remember During Your Kid’s Next Public Meltdown

Nov 22, 2017

Everyone’s kid has had a public meltdown at some point, so why do we sometimes get so embarrassed or self-conscious when it happens to us? Logically, a toddler tantrum in the supermarket is par for parenthood, but during the actual moment, it’s the worst. You might feel powerless, angry, or ashamed. And you may even convince yourself that a roomful of strangers thinks you’re a failure as a parent.

While it’s hard to be rational when you’re literally dragging your preschooler kicking and screaming out of a store, here are four things you need to remember when faced with your child’s public displays of aggression.

1. Sometimes a meltdown is a cry for help. So help.

As your kid wails inconsolably in line to get a photo with Santa, keep in mind the issue isn’t always behavioural. “It’s important to acknowledge your child having a temper tantrum might not directly be related to something you’ve done or not done,” says psychologist, author, and parenting expert Sara Dimerman. “Certain places can be overstimulating or boring for little ones, or your child might be really hungry or tired — there are so many contributing factors.”

When a baby cries in public, no one feels embarrassed because that’s how they communicate needs and ask for help, Dimerman points out. But older children can be the same — they don’t always have the words to calmly express they’re hungry, overtired, anxious or overwhelmed.

As your kid wails inconsolably in line to get a photo with Santa, keep in mind the issue isn’t always behavioural.

Motivated by the thrill of getting all your shopping done, you might be able to push lunch back an hour. The kid you’re dragging along, however, needed food or downtime 20 minutes ago. Not getting enough water will also bring on crankiness and headaches. A snack, drink and a rest can do wonders for stopping — and preventing — meltdowns.

Meeting your kid’s physical needs is one thing, but satisfying mental requirements can be a bit trickier. “Depending on the child, grocery stores can be either overstimulating or very boring,” says Dimerman. “You can use strategies to either distract them or, better, have them become more involved with what you’re doing.”


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To help kids stay engaged without sensory overload, she suggests having your preschooler organize the groceries in the cart (colour, size or shape?) or handing your older child a calculator (or, if you’re brave, your cellphone) to have them tally up purchases.

2. Consistency’s important when you’re a parent, but house rules don’t always apply out in the wild.

When you’re at home and your kid has a meltdown or disobeys, you may have a set plan. Maybe you endure it for as long as it lasts, or send them to another room (or send yourself to another room). In public, you don’t want to make a scene or disturb people, but you also don’t want to ‘reward’ bad behaviour and teach your children if they make a fuss, you’ll give them whatever they want. Should you stay or should you go? The right choice comes down to the child, the parent, the cause of the meltdown, and where you are.

“I think a lot depends on the environment you’re in. If you’re in a family restaurant, children are expected — you can allow something to go along for a bit without leaving,” says Dimerman. “But if it’s an adult environment, with no expectation of children, you may respond differently and opt to leave a bit more quickly.”

The right choice comes down to the child, the parent, the cause of the meltdown, and where you are.

Full-scale meltdown at a movie theatre or fine dining establishment? Get out quickly. But if you’re at the grocery store with a full shopping cart, you may just want to head to an aisle with less traffic and more privacy.

To avoid screaming matches, Dimerman suggests you get down to their eye level and acknowledge what they’re feeling using a calm, quiet voice. Acknowledge their frustrations: ‘I know it’s hard to sit in this grocery cart for a long time.’

It’s not a good idea to bribe your way out of the situation with ice cream, especially if you wouldn’t use this tactic at home. However, there’s a big difference between giving in and helping your child. Maybe offer to open up that bag of carrots you just bought?

3. You are not the first parent to deal with a toddler tantrum in this department store.

Sometimes, during a really loud and public meltdown, you lose track of the fact you are not the only person this has ever happened to in recorded history. There’s actually a pretty good chance you did this to your mom or dad, so it’s all just really a karmic cycle passed on through the generations. 

Toddlers and older children get upset. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent (you are!) and it doesn’t mean they’re horrible kids (they’re not!). You’ll get through this seemingly eternal six minutes, and you’ll commiserate with other parents or laugh about it on social media soon enough.


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4. Nobody else (really) cares. And if they do, forget them.

When your kid is melting down, it feels like everyone is staring at you to see how you’ll handle things. It may also feel like they see your kid’s behaviour as a reflection of your bad, permissive parenting skills. 

“People looking on, if they’re parents, remember what it felt like when it happened to them, so for the most part they’re identifying with you and they’re silently feeling bad for you,” says Dimerman. “The vast majority aren’t judging you, but it’s normal to feel that way, even if intellectually we know that’s not the case.”

...remember they’re not your real audience — your kid is.

Regardless, a loud temper tantrum can bring on a lot of attention. Whether it’s critical or sympathetic, you’re suddenly in the spotlight. For a lot of parents, that’s not a great place to be when you just wanted to buy your four-year-old a coat.

To defuse tension, you might offer apologies or make witty comments to others in earshot, but remember they’re not your real audience — your kid is.

Has your kid had a public temper tantrum or epic meltdown? How did you feel at the time? How did you resolve it? How long was it before you were making jokes about it with other parents?

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are the proud parents of a six-year-old girl who is already pretty adept with a tablet, and a two-year-old boy who probably will be sooner than appropriate. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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