Check out the PedsDocTalk YouTube Video: Toddler Tantrums in Public for more on what causes toddler tantrums, how to prevent them in public settings, how to coach your child through one, and how to teach them strategies to manage their big feelings better in the future.
If you’re a parent of a toddler, you’ve most likely experienced public tantrums. You’re out to dinner, and your toddler loses it because they didn’t want the pasta they ordered. Or, you’re at the playground, and your little one doesn’t want to leave. It can be overwhelming as a parent trying to navigate a toddler tantrum when it feels like everyone is watching.
When approaching public tantrums, remember to prepare, manage, and assess. This approach is essential in coaching your child through a tantrum and teaching them the strategies to manage their big feelings better in the future.
Preparation is helpful, but please manage your expectations. Sometimes, people prepare for a particular situation with their child. Then, when it doesn’t go as expected, they are frustrated and disappointed. Even as well as you know your child, they can still be unpredictable.
Public tantrums are more likely to happen when tantrums, in general, are more likely. For example, tantrums are likely when a child is tired or hungry. You can prepare by planning the event around nap(s) or packing snacks for on-the-go. Do your best to maintain your routine, but understand that this is not always possible.
Tantrums can also happen due to boredom, so bringing a favorite toy or security item can be helpful. Only bring it out if you need it to allow children to experience the sights and sounds of their surroundings and normalize that boredom is a normal feeling.
Also, consider your child’s temperament when planning activities outside of the house. Some children get overstimulated more easily than others. Some children go with the flow, while others need more structure. If your child does better with routine or needs some rest time during the day, try to avoid overscheduling your day. For example, it may be best to spend the morning at home instead of at the park if you plan on going to a museum in the afternoon. All children are different – some may enjoy a busy day of activities, whereas others may get overstimulated – you know your child best.
Let’s say you have done everything you can to prepare your child – you made sure they are rested, ate a snack, and are comfy, yet they still start having a meltdown. Welcome to parenthood! You did nothing wrong, but kids will be kids even with preparation, so don’t sweat it. Now, how do you navigate a toddler tantrum in a public setting?
Parent your child in public just as you would parent them in private! We often feel that when in public, we have to put on a show or do something different. However, the reality is that this is a typical tantrum, but it’s in a public place. Don’t let judgmental eyes get YOU more frustrated than you usually would.
Take a deep breath. You are not alone. It may feel incredibly isolating because judgmental eyes are looking at you. But during this moment, I want you to imagine that it’s just you and your child alone. Block out the noise and commentary, and focus on this moment as you and your child will get through it together.
Get down to their level, verbalize, stroke their back, or just let them have their moment. Yelling threats or spanking are not recommended (both in public or at home).
You may consider distraction to exciting things in the environment or with a toy. Offer points of control if they feel dysregulated. This can give them a sense of control when their emotions are not. This could look like kneeling down, holding out two toys, and letting them choose one. Sometimes, they may cry more, but sometimes this can help.
Try to avoid distracting them with cell phones or tablets in public places when they are in the middle of a tantrum to reduce their reliance on needing these when they’re upset. Having these on hand while you’re waiting is reasonable, but don’t let their tears be why you take the screen out. This can become a learned behavior. But, if screens are truly the only thing that works for your child to maintain your sanity – this is understandable, but avoid getting into a screentime tantrum cycle.
Don’t explain social norms in the middle of the meltdown. For example, saying, “You have to be quiet,” seems like it will make sense; however, when a child is in the middle of a meltdown, their brain does not comprehend logic. You need to meet the emotional side of their brain that is firing right now with understanding and patience. Yes, it’s hard. But it’s the most helpful approach for your child.
Consider leaving, but you don’t always have to. If an event is quiet and your child is having a tantrum, you can decide to go into a corner or leave the room. Sometimes, the change of scenery can also help dispel the tantrum. But, sometimes, you can’t leave. For example, you’re in a line at the grocery store or on an airplane. So, do your best. There will be moments when you can’t leave with your toddler or need to finish what you’re doing. It’s up to you to decide if you will leave or stay by assessing the situation and your child’s behavior. The judgment of others should not influence this decision.
Debrief after the public tantrum. Public tantrums can feel overwhelming and embarrassing. Remember, that the debrief can really help you and your child. Debriefing is most useful after 2.5 years; however, debriefs can help calm you down and re-visit the event if your child is before this age.
Once your child has calmed down, remind them that they are safe and loved. Then, talk about what happened. Tantrums take a lot out of us as parents, especially those public ones. Talking and debriefing (even with a toddler or child) can really help.
We can’t teach our children about experiences if we don’t expose them.
Many parents are so afraid of public tantrums that they don’t expose their children to events and places. Although it’s valid to feel this way – don’t feel stuck or isolated thinking you can’t do public activities with children.
Here are some scripts if you need them during a public tantrum.
“I see you’re really upset because of [XYZ]. I understand, and we will be done soon.”
“I can tell you really wanted [XYZ], but you can’t have it right now. Would you like this or this?” Then show them their other options.
“I see you’re really upset. Mommy is right here. Take your moment if you need it. I’m not going anywhere.”
It’s important to approach these statements with a matter-of-fact tone versus a question or with frustration. Do this so they understand that their big feelings don’t bother you and we have to continue on.
Sometimes, you can remain calm and let them have their moment – you can control your body language and facial expressions. This normalizes letting our children feel and not constantly trying to fix it. Your calm presence is something they will notice.
A final reminder
Try to remind yourself that all kids experience tantrums – public tantrums included. Every parent has been where you are. Public tantrums are part of the norm. Remember to parent your child in public just as you would in private! Keep in mind the strategies to prepare, assess, and manage. You are navigating your child’s big feelings in a public place, learning together, and will grow from these experiences.