Public Displays of Disaster: What to do when your child loses it outside the home

Jacob, almost 3 years old, has thrown himself on the floor of the grocery store screaming that he must have one more chocolate, just one more! Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Most parents of young children live in terror of their little one losing it in public. It’s hard to avoid feeling judged and ashamed of out-of-control behavior, as if it is evidence of total incompetence as a parent, surely a result of your indulgence which has inevitably created a spoiled child. And for parents who don’t particularly care what others think, it can just be exhausting and frustrating when you are trying to get something done. This experience naturally puts parents themselves in an emotionally charged place, feeling embarrassed and often angry at their child for putting them in this nasty situation.

So, what can you do in these moments to reduce the stress both for yourself and your child—with the added benefit of feeling competent and effective instead of weak and mortified?

Don’t let the onlookers get to you

Ideally, just tune them out. Most are likely feeling your pain, having been there themselves, and aren’t judging. And for those feeling some guilty pleasure that it’s not them in the hot seat, ignoring is still a good strategy so you can stay focused on coming up with a productive response to helping your child cope.

Kill them with kindness.

If a bystander makes some really helpful (not!) comment (“I think he’s hungry”…”His diaper may be dirty”), avoid being reactive. You have nothing to be defensive about. Instead, try: “It is so nice that you want to help. I really appreciate it. But I’m all good. Learning that he can’t get everything he wants is a hard lesson for a little guy, right?” This is a nice way to send some important messages: “I am in control, and I am being a really good parent by setting appropriate limits and helping my child learn to cope with life’s disappointments.” This can be a particularly good strategy when it is your mother, or mother-in-law, or another close friend or family member who is trying to help.

Stay calm

If you are anxious and upset, your child is more likely to be anxious and upset. If you are calm and composed, she is likely to pull herself together more quickly. So while your emotional reaction is completely understandable, it is not strategic to come on strong, because it tends to escalate rather than calm your child. When she is falling apart, she needs you to be her rock. Best to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that, if you lose it too, it will likely make the situation at hand more stressful and challenging. (And, for those parents who can’t let go of what others are thinking—you don’t want to give any of those judgy onlookers any ammunition.)

Validate your child’s feelings

“I know you are very angry that I am not giving you any more chocolate.” Validating feelings is not the same as validating behavior. Feelings aren’t the problem—they just are. It’s what kids (and parents) do with their feelings that can be problematic. That’s why one of your most important jobs is to help your child learn to manage these strong, difficult emotions in ways that are pro-social. But that takes time and practice. And it starts with validation—which helps children feel understood—and is the first step in helping them identify and then manage these emotions.

Provide choices that you can implement

This might mean offering your child a choice of another, acceptable food—perhaps something that is a little special but healthy, such as yogurt raisins. Some parents don’t want to offer a substitute at all. That is a personal decision. Even when offering the alternative, your child may flat-out reject it and intensify the tantrum to show you just how lame he thinks this other option is. In that case, you calmly say, “You are really upset about not getting what you want. It is my job to keep you safe so I am going to put you in the grocery cart. You will be okay.” And then you follow through with as much calm as you can muster and ignore all his efforts to get you to react. Divert yourself by talking about what you see in the grocery aisles. You might ask him if he can find and point to his favorite cereal on the shelf. This lets him know you are going to ignore his outburst, but you are not ignoring him, and that you can handle his upset and will be a “safe base” for him.

Most important is to try not to allow your worry about bystanders’ opinions and judgments to drive your behavior in these situations. Many parents report that they end up giving in to their child in order to get her to behave—to avoid the embarrassment or hassle—even though they don’t think that’s best for their child. But you have nothing to be embarrassed about; and when you give in, your child is cleverly putting 2 and 2 together: “Mommy or Daddy will pretty much give me anything to get me to quiet down when we’re anywhere but home!” Children having breakdowns when they don’t get their way is a normal part of growing up. When you respond calmly and empathically, and set clear limits that you can enforce, you send both your child and the onlookers the message that you’re all good—calm and in control.

I said I want the red bowl! Responding to Toddlers’ Irrational Behavior

Claire Lerner, LCSW
Amelia, told that she can’t have a fifth book before bedtime, shouts: “You are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!” Derek, when offered a choice between carrots and cheese, not ice cream, before dinner announces: “I don’t like the choices you are choicing me!” Alex hurls a bowl of his favorite cereal off the table and screams, “I said the red bowl, not the blue bowl!” If any of these exclamations sounds familiar, you are not alone. Welcome to what can feel like the Wild West of toddlerhood.

But seen through the eyes of the child, and through the lens of development, these behaviors, while maddening, are utterly normal, and signal important milestones are being achieved. Further, these incidents don’t have to be dreaded, as they are opportunities to teach children to manage their emotions, learn to cope with frustration and disappointment, and find ways to feel in control of their ever-expanding worlds in prosocial, acceptable ways.

Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to a child’s behavior influences how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative or purposely designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react in angry or harsh ways that escalate instead of calm our child. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and be more effective in teaching good coping skills.

Here are some important factors that influence young children’s behavior that are helpful to keep in mind when dealing with challenging behaviors:

1) Young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain that controls children’s ability to think, plan and problem-solve does not start to develop until close to age three and is not fully formed until well into adolescence. So young children are largely driven by their impulses and cannot be expected to respond to reasoning or logic.  

2) Toddlers are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings—that they can have different thoughts and feelings from others. This means that while they want to sleep in your bed, they know this is not what you have in mind. This new cognitive milestone, coupled with toddlers’ innate drive to exert some control over their world, leads to an all-out effort to bring you around to their way of thinking. They are extremely clever and will try any and all tactics at their disposal (calling you names, threatening to never go to sleep, or throwing a knock-down-drag-out tantrum, to name a few). This is often what many parents call “manipulation,” but which I like to think of as strategic, as beautifully illustrated by this shrewd three-year-old. When she cried out for food every night after she was put to bed (not more than 15 minutes after having passed up the snack offered at book-reading time), her parents appeared at her bedside, snacks in hand. The next morning she told her dad, “I just want to let you know that tonight after you put me to bed I am going to be very hungry!”

3) Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them at this young age. Think about it—many adults are still working on being aware of their feelings and choosing to act on them in healthy ways.

So, what’s a parent to do?

  • Stay in control when your child is spiraling out of control. Managing your emotions and reactions is one of most important parenting tools at your disposal. When parents get reactive and emotional, it tends to escalate the child’s upset and intensify power struggles. When your child is losing it, she needs you to be her rock and stay sane and rational.

  • Keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything–eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

This is not manipulation, it is a smart calculation, and means you are raising a really competent kid. He is figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is awesome. It is our job is to teach our kids which strategies are effective and which aren’t. So any behaviors you don’t want him to rely on can’t be successful, or what would be the motivation to give them up?

  • Show empathy and validate the feeling. “I know the blue shirt is your favorite and you are really disappointed that you can’t wear it today, but it’s in the wash.” It isn’t feelings that are the problem, it’s how they get acted on that can be problematic. The more you validate feelings, the less likely children are to have to act on them.

  • Set the limit and provide acceptable choices. “Your choice today is the red or yellow shirt.” If your child refuses the “choices you are choicing” him, then you let him know that you will make the choice. He may throw a fit. As calmly as you can, put a shirt on him and move along so he experiences the consequence of his actions. That is how children ultimately learn to make good decisions—by experiencing the outcomes of their choices and assessing which get them what they want and which don’t. If a tantrum leads to you taking that blue shirt out of the laundry, you: 1) give him the false expectation that he will get everything he wants, making it harder for him to learn to be flexible and accept alternatives—a critical life skill for getting along in the world; 2) send him the message that tantrums or refusal to cooperate are successful strategies, which he will naturally continue to rely on; and 3) communicate that you don’t think he can handle this disappointment, a missed opportunity for him to experience that he can indeed survive wearing a different shirt—building flexibility and important coping skills.

When my son was three and my daughter one, after over 600 consecutive nights of his getting to choose the books we read at bedtime, my daughter spoke up and said, “I want Clifford!” Since it seemed utterly fair for her to finally get a chance to choose, I promptly started to read about the big red dog, when my son shouted: “I NEVER GET TO CHOOSE THE BOOK!” What planet do you live on? (said the voice in my head). Talk about irrational! I completely mishandled it (despite being a child development specialist even back then), shaming him for being so selfish and engaging in all sorts of inappropriate and ineffective responses, like freezing him out and refusing a hug at bedtime. I still cringe when I think about it 20 years later. But I ultimately learned from my mistakes and made some course corrections. It’s never too late.