How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums in Public

This article was written by our Co-Founder and Chief Science & Technology Officer, cauri jaye, for Motherly. This is a re-post of that exact article that you can also read here.

You‘re in the store browsing. Suddenly the soft, piped music gets interrupted by a screech so loud and high-pitched you almost drop your bag. You look over and see a parent scrambling to attend to her toddler prone on the ground, face distorted, crying at full volume. And sometimes, to your surprise, you’re the parent!

These toddler tantrums are a natural part of a child’s development and children do not care if they are in public. When it is your child remember that, just like you, all the other parents around are more sympathetic than annoyed by it. Aside from being a dad, I co-founded Sesh, an app which makes parenting easier.

This article will guide you on how to manage these public toddler tantrums and how to (sometimes) avoid them altogether.

Types of tantrums

Did you know there are two types of tantrums? There’s the kind where your child tells you what they want, argues with you, and looks to see how you react to them. We call these top tantrums. Then there is the other kind, where your child is inconsolable, runs away or hits, cries uncontrollably and does not even hear you, let alone listen to reason. We call these bottom tantrums.

Each type requires very different techniques. The first step is to know which type of tantrum you face. Toddlers often start with a top tantrum—“I want it!”, “buy me a chocolate, pleeeeease?”—and then dissolve into a bottom tantrum, aka when they melt down.

So we need very different tactics to turn these around.

Five ways to deal with top tantrums

Top tantrums, sometimes called manipulative tantrums, are logical and use the prefrontal cortex of your child’s developing brain—the part that governs speech, thought and reasoning. So some smart tactics can turn these around very quickly before they get out of hand.

Try to spot the top tantrum before it really gets going, and use these methods to stop it from devolving into a meltdown:

  1. Respond in a calm tone. Even when you're annoyed beyond belief, responding calmly will prevent the conversation from escalating further.

  2. Explain in a way your child can understand. Remember, they don't understand the situation and context the way you do. Avoid complex language, logic, or reasoning and help them understand why now isn't a good time.

  3. Set timely expectations. Instead of "we'll do it later", give a specific timeframe: "we can go to the park after we shop" or "we will go to the park on Friday". This shows your child that you're taking their request seriously.

  4. Start with "yes". "Yes" can also mean no when you set the expectation afterwards. For example: "Yes, you may have a cookie… after dinner" or "Yes, we can go to the playground after we have lunch with grandpa".

  5. Distract with a plan. Sometimes your efforts will still end in tears and that's okay. Distract your child by planning the thing they want, together. Ask them questions or have them tell you what they like about that thing. For instance, "what kind of cookie will you have after dinner?" or "what do you most want to play on at the park?"

Top tantrums are opportunities to teach your child the life skill of using their words to get what they want.

Five ways to deal with bottom tantrums

Bottom tantrums happen when the logical brain gives up control to the primitive brain—governed by instinct and emotion and programmed to respond with fight (hitting, throwing), flight (running away, hiding), and freeze (curling up, sobbing). When in this stage, your toddler’s body is flooded with hormones that need time to subside before the logical brain can take over again.

If you’re too late and a bottom tantrum has begun, here are a few techniques to deal with a meltdown:

  1. Remember, it's not your job to fix it. Tantrums are a natural part of your child's development as they explore language, learn words for feelings, and develop communication skills.

  2. Accept that a tantrum is happening. Bottom tantrums take time and can last from 20 to 90 minutes. Your child’s body needs some time to clear out all that cortisol (stress), so try to be patient with the process.

  3. Stop talking. Trying to make yourself heard over your screaming child will only cause more stress for both of you. During a meltdown, your child can’t respond to your reasoning or instructions. Instead, speak less and use appropriate non-verbal techniques like breathing exercises and getting down on their level for a hug.

  4. Go somewhere calm. When you’re in public or around others, this can add stress and pressure to the already stressful situation. Go find a quiet place or a safe familiar place, like the car or your child's favorite corner. You can refill your shopping cart later; abandon it and get to a safe space to wait it out.

  5. Prepare a tantrum kit. The kit can include physical items to help calm your child, as well as techniques or activities your child responds well to. You know your child better than anyone, so personalize your tantrum kit to their needs and the situation or environment in which the tantrum is likely to occur. Did you know, the act of preparing can give you peace of mind, whether or not you actually end up using the kit?

Three ways to get the best out of tantrums

Tantrums are not all bad. Pursue these three valuable outcomes:

  1. Teach communication. Many tantrums come from your child not knowing what to call their emotions or not having the language to express what they want. It's an opportunity to teach your child how to express their feelings and their needs calmly.

  2. Get closer. After a meltdown your child needs a cuddle and possibly to talk about what happened. This is a chance to build a closer bond.

  3. Know your child. Learn why your child is having tantrums by getting to know the triggers. This will give you deep insight into the unique character of your child.

Parenting expert and author of the best-selling book How to Raise Successful People, Esther Wojcicki, reminds us that “you must never give in to a tantrum or you will be training them to have tantrums if they really want something. If kids see tantrums as a way to get what they want, that is a big problem for the future. They need to learn to use their words.”

Tantrums are not a sign of failure, weakness or bad parenting. Get the most out of them, and don’t sweat the public ones. Every parent can relate, and we were all once that child on the floor screaming.

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cauri jaye

cauri is a soft-skills expert, technologist, and parenting coach who created the Sesh parenting app. cauri is a soft-skills expert, technologist, and parenting coach who created the Sesh parenting app. 

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