Zionsville Times Sentinel

September 4, 2013

Do's and don'ts of handling public tantrums

By Tess Worrell
For the Times Sentinel

---- — As my daughter and I perused the school supplies aisle, it dawned on me that our voices had risen several decibels. The cause? One aisle over, a mom stood comparing prices while her 6-year-old son sat in the back of the cart screaming. It barely fazed her.

I wasn't sure which was worse — the misbehavior of a boy old enough to know better or the absolute disconnect of the mom. We all face those moments. We're in public, usually picking up desperately needed milk and diapers, and our child melts down. What's a parent to do? More importantly, what should a parent avoid doing at all costs?

Don't — Ignore behavior hoping it will go away. Sometimes this works. Sometimes momentary disappointment over a denied toy overwhelms our child, and she breaks down. If we give her a minute, she regains her composure and moves on. Yet, this only works with a child who generally behaves well.

For the child trying to manipulate her parents into giving in, ignoring the behavior often effectively waves a red flag in front of a bull. Child takes the challenge for a battle of wills — determined to win.

Even more than a battle of wills, a child's public tantrum may be a desperate plea for engagement from his parent. When parents meander through a store oblivious to their child's rant, they clearly communicate they would rather disregard their child than nurture him. The child is cornered into getting attention however he can.

Don't — Lash out at your child. At the other end of the spectrum are the parents who either verbally or physically attack their children to squelch the tantrum. Amazingly, most of these encounters fail to faze the child.

Typically, a standoff results with parents lashing out while their child screams back. Not only does this seriously erode the relationship between parent and child, it fails to achieve the parents' ultimate goal — a child who behaves in public. What can we do instead?

Do — expect public behavior at home. Parents often withdraw or lash out when they are overwhelmed by a situation and don't know how to cope with very inappropriate behavior of their child. They wonder, "Why can't he just be good?" Typically, the answer is, "He doesn't know how."

See Wednesday's Times Sentinel for the full story.