Tantrums in Public: 10 Tips to Manage the Drama & Deal with the Judgement

The moment people can see that you’re pregnant, moms are subjected to unsolicited advice on pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing.  Everyone from the kindly checkout lady at the supermarket to your boss to your childless second-cousin seems to be brimming with insight and knowledge that simply must be passed along, never mind that you hadn’t asked for advice.

And with all of the advice pregnant moms and new parents receive, there is great pressure to appear to be handling things well.  So when your three-year-old starts shrieking at the hair salon or throwing food in the restaurant, you feel sweaty with panic to regain control.  You can feel all the eyes turning your direction to judge your next move, feel eyes rolling at your incompetence.  The urge to escape or hide is strong.  You’re overwhelmed, embarrassed, and angry with your child.  These are the moments when we already feel at our worst as parents and wind up judging ourselves as failures.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s completely normal to feel emotionally and physiologically revved up when your child is having strong emotions and/or acting out.  These feelings are only intensified in a public setting when you feel the added pressure of all that perceived judgement.  Although usually harshest judge in these situations is in our own heads.

The first step in managing these overwhelming moments in parenting is to quiet and calm yourself so you can think clearly and choose wisely.  This can be tough to do in the moment.  But at any moment in managing these public tantrums, see if you can take a pause to try one of these tips.  This may not happen until you’re in your minivan in the parking lot and red with embarrassment and frustration.  But there’s still time before you yell something else you’ll regret to try something different.

Here are 10 tips to soothe yourself in these challenging moments:

  1. Take a breath. Count in slowly to four and then breathe out to the count of four.  If you manage to unclench your jaw and drop your shoulders, you’ll be in much better shape to manage the situation with a clear mind.
  2. Find the humor in the moment.  Kids’ tantrums are often so irrational, your friends may not believe it was true.  So just take a mental picture of this meltdown to tell your friends about later, “Can you believe he was sobbing on the floor because I wouldn’t give him ice cream for breakfast?”
  3. Be kind to yourself.  Imagine you’re talking to a best friend and cheering him/her on.  These are the words to use when encouraging ourselves during the toughest moments.
  4. Remember your child’s behavior is related to his/her development.  Toddlers are still learning to manage their emotions and how they express them.  Expecting toddlers to be rational and reasonable is a recipe for frustration.
  5. Step away from the situation for a moment.  If you can safely take a little break from the tantrum scene, try to give yourself a moment to collect yourself.  Sometimes this moment will be limited to the few seconds between closing  the minivan door with your child still wailing in his car seat as you walk around the vehicle to your own door.  Breathe in that moment like a reset button before you get back in the driver’s seat.
  6. Take comfort that ALL PARENTS have had these tough moments.  Imagine a person you highly esteem as a parent and know that at some point he or she has been here too.
  7. It really is okay to abandon the grocery cart or turn your restaurant dinner into a takeout meal.  Continuing to try to talk with or get cooperation from a child during a meltdown is often not energy well spent.  It’s okay sometimes to just leave.
  8. Focus on something tangible in the moment.  You might find it helpful to breathe in a relaxing scent or splash yourself with some water.  In fact, your child might benefit from a quick distraction as well.
  9. Imagine how you’ll retell this story to your child when he/she is a parent.  Just like telling your friends about this irrational meltdown later, it’s helpful to think about telling your kid these stories when they have children of their own.  You might find yourself feeling much more empathy for your own parents as you wrestle a tantruming toddler into the car seat.
  10. Forgive yourself. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.  Parenting is learned through practice.  And unless we are able to give ourselves permission to forgive the mistakes and learn from them, then we don’t really grow.

In the end, every parent has had to deal with a toddler having a public tantrum and felt him/herself handle it poorly.  So try to give yourself a little self-compassion.  And the next time you see another parent struggling with a screaming child in the cereal aisle, send them some compassion and a smile too.  We could all judge ourselves and others with a bit more kindness.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for Linden BP.  If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.