As a mother of a preschooler and toddler, I’ve seen my share of meltdowns. I realize the dangers of running too many errands in a row, scheduling activities close to nap time or failing to bring snacks. However, there are times when a public meltdown is unavoidable, no matter how well-versed a mom may be in tantrum prevention strategies.
I found myself in the middle of my preschooler’s uncontrollable outburst not long ago. The setting was Hobby Lobby. The time was mid-afternoon (prime tantrum time!). My preschooler had fallen asleep on the way to the store. I struggled with whether or not to wake him, but I had already driven 30 minutes out of my way to pick up craft supplies for my MOPS meeting the next day. As I pushed the cart through the store, I tried to ignore my son’s whining about how boring the errand was, his brother touching his hair and wanting to watch Netflix on my phone.
We passed an aisle of toys and the whining grew into a steady howl as he spotted something he wanted. There was no way I was giving in to the toy request, but I felt people staring as he yelled at the top of his lungs. I hid in the yarn aisle while pleading, threatening and bribing. I knew that letting my son see my frustration was the wrong approach, but at this point I just wanted to make.it.stop. As the carrying-on showed no signs of stopping, I decided to bite the bullet and make the trek through the store to the checkout.
My son’s outburst would soon be on full display for the entire store.
As I reached the checkout, an available cashier called me over. She calmly started ringing up my items, despite the ear-splitting ruckus coming from my cart. I motioned toward my son and explained how his nap time had been interrupted that day. She smiled and replied with a comment about understanding the struggle of a missed nap. “I like your sweatshirt,” she said to my son. He was wearing a bright orange sweatshirt, one of his favorites. He smiled at her. This woman was good! The commotion ceased. People went back to minding their own business. The cashier finished ringing up my purchases and we made small talk about the craft project I was planning. As I walked to my car, I thanked my lucky stars for this woman and her ability to diffuse the situation.
I recalled the incident to my husband later that evening. Now that I was out of the trenches, I was able to pinpoint strategies that my new Hobby Lobby bestie had used to de-escalate my son’s meltdown:
Instead of losing my cool and making threats or bribes when my son was acting out, I should have used the opportunity to model appropriate coping strategies. The cashier barely batted an eye when I rolled up with my little howler monkey. I set a goal to respond without frustration or anger if we were ever in that situation again. This staying calm bit is easier said than done, but continue modeling those respectful interactions.
Empathize & Acknowledge Feelings
I realize now that my son’s tantrum was the result of fatigue and frustration. My embarrassment caused me to focus on my own feelings of failure instead of responding in a more compassionate way (i.e. the way the cashier responded with an understanding comment about the missed nap time). This doesn’t mean that I won’t enforce limits or consequences for future inappropriate behavior if necessary, but I know that my preschooler is still learning about self-expression and effective communication, so I try to keep this in mind.
Distract & Redirect
The cashier’s comment about my son’s sweatshirt was a stroke of genius! Find any sort of diversion that you can use to your advantage. Point out something funny, ask for help picking out the yummiest-looking strawberries, make up a silly song, etc.
Parenting educator Janet Lansbury’s words about public tantrums resonate with me, no matter what theory of child development you may subscribe to. “The way I see it, we owe it to our children to protect their dignity in these situations. If they can’t manage to be there, it’s time to take them home and reconsider the appropriateness (or at least the timing) of bringing them again…..social situations tend to be highly stimulating and distracting, and even children who know the rules quite well can need our help in following them”.
Do you have any tantrum horror stories to share? What strategies have you found most helpful for you and your child in these situations?