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Every parent has been through it at some point or another. You're at the store or the park. Your child decides that they want something – or maybe they just want to leave. They’re upset. You've been working with them to help them express their feelings in a different way, but they're still learning and adjusting. And, in this moment, they’ve decided to express their feelings in the loudest, most noticeable way possible. :0
So what should you, as a parent, do when your child is having a public meltdown? Here are some of my thoughts that I’d like to share.
Why are public tantrums so hard to deal with?
Emotional outbursts or tantrums are hard enough to deal with at home, but when you’re in public, it can become even more frustrating and harder to deal with.
For a toddler, having a tantrum may look like throwing themselves on the ground while kicking, screaming and crying. The good thing about having a little one is that – well, they’re little – so you're more than likely able to pick them up and move on before things get too out of hand.
For children 4 to 6 years old, their tantrums may look the same, but they're physically bigger. Meaning, their tantrums have a lot more umph and strength to them. It also means that it may be harder to pick them up or physically remove them from the situation.
For school-age children between 7 and 9 they typically don’t throw themselves on the ground anymore, which is great! But, as you already know if you're a parent of a child this age, that doesn't mean they're not going to find a way to show you how upset they are.
Their tantrums can look more like them crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, or using other non-verbal communication to let you know exactly who (they think) is in charge. Chances are, they will also have a “look” on their face.
And, because of their age, weight and height, you more than likely can't get them to budge. Let’s not also forget about the verbal statements that they are probably sending your way which can sound accusatory, insulting and straight up disrespectful.
Often, parents tell me - and I've experienced it for myself, too – that the worst part of public tantrums isn't the child themselves. Yes, tantrums can be annoying and frustrating. But the worst part, for many parents, is the judgment you feel radiating off of everyone around you.
This judgment can be real or perceived. Meaning that sometimes, it's actually happening. People around you may be staring at you as you struggle with your child. They may even make unnecessary, and unkind, comments. Some may even try to help you - rare but it can happens.
But sometimes, it's perceived judgment – meaning that you may be imagining judgment when it's not really there. And this is completely natural: All parents worry about how their parenting is viewed by other people. It doesn't help that everyone seems to have an opinion on parenting, whether they're parents themselves or not.
Whether it's real or perceived doesn't really matter. What matters is that you feel judged and maybe even helpless and hopeless. And that is what makes public tantrums even harder to deal with than they already are.
When you feel/perceive all those eyes on you, it starts to feel impossible to focus on what's going on in front of you: Your child needs your support and guidance.
It's also in these moments where you might feel an internal struggle going on. On one side, you feel the pressure of all of these eyes on you. You might feel an intense pressure to “get your child in line” because that's what you feel society expects of you as a parent. And in many cases, we often think about what our own parents would expect of us when disciplining our child.
And on the other side, there's a part of you that realizes that’s not what your child needs. They don't need to be shut up and brought in line. They need you to help them manage their disappointment, sadness, crankiness, etc. And I’m sure, if you are a reader of my blog or a parent I work with, that you already know that.
But, in these moments, it so hard to stay true to your values and wishes for your child, when you believe the world around you is judging you and all of those inner voices, that represent your stern upbringing, are telling you how to “handle” this situation.
I just want to say that this is all completely natural to feel; we all have been there and we’ve all felt the same way.
Steps to take when your child is having a public tantrum
Here's how to ride through those feelings and get embarrassment or shame out of the way so that you can tend to your child in the way they need.
Step 1: Take a breath
We've all been told to “Take a breath” when we've been upset, and we all know that this advice, in a heated moment, isn't really helpful. But try to remember that breathing truly is necessary in these moments to get grounded and centered.
It's actually all based in science.
Breathing regularly and deeply – into the diaphragm – regulates our nervous system. When you’re under all that pressure and your child is kicking and screaming, you're probably in your stress response, also known as fight-or-flight mode.
This stress response can help us deal with things that require immediate attention – think powerful moms lifting cars off their children - but when you need to think rationally about how to respond, it can really get in the way.
Just by adjusting your breathing, you're able to shut the stress response down. Your sympathetic nervous system – the one that's responsible for releasing those stress hormones – realizes it isn’t needed. Breathing in this way induces the body’s relaxation response. This helps you think more clearly because your brain is no longer flooded with stress hormones.
If you're new to deep breathing, check out this YouTube video. I think it does a great job of explaining why it's important and guides you through a simple activity.
Step 2: Remember this is a child
Often, the fact that your child is causing a scene in public makes us feel so embarrassed that we completely forget that this is a child we’re dealing with.
Children get upset and have tantrums. That’s what they do.
They might be learning how to express their emotions using their words, but they're never going to get it in the same way that adults do. That's why they're children. That's why we're responsible for teaching them these important life skills.
Children’s brains are nowhere near reaching full development. Specifically, they haven't yet developed their pre-frontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that's responsible for self-control. In fact, the adult brain doesn't fully develop until age 25.
As self-aware as a child may be, it would be unfair to ever expect them to behave like an adult does. And, as we all know, even adults have trouble regulating their feelings sometimes.
So the next time this happens, try to remember that your child is behaving accordingly for their brain development.
If you are interested in learning more about brain development, here’s a great resource, available in both English and Spanish!
Step 3: Forget the haters
Last but definitely not least, it’s important to address your own feelings of shame and maybe even guilt.
No one likes feeling judged in public, and there’s an extra layer of hurt and shame when your child is involved. But when your shame or guilt is leading the way, it’s hard to stay calm and centered.
Shame can sound like, “What kind of parent am I if I can’t control my own child?”
Guilt can sound like, “I’m such a bad parent. I knew I should have not brought my child out today but I did anyway.”
Try to also remember that if people are watching you struggle with your child, they’re most likely just curious about how you are going to handle the situation.
Should they look away and ignore you? Should they try to help? It’s hard to know exactly what to do when a child is upset.
I’m sure you have been out and about as a parent yourself and have seen another child tantrum too. Did your heart go out to that parent? Were you glad that wasn’t you? Were you also curious how they were going to handle it? Our own judgmental part may even show up if we believe we would be handling differently.
The point is, what others think of you is not your problem because you know what, you probably won’t see them again.
What is your problem and what is important is your child and your own mental well-being.
For additional insight on how to manage behavior that you feel is manipulative, check out this blog I wrote.
And, in case you haven’t heard, I’m going to be hosting a free online workshop to help parents of children aged 3 to 8. I'll address tantrums, talking back, and other behaviors that make parenting stressful and draining. Register here!
Virtual support groups for parents
The issues I mentioned above are common issues that all parents struggle with – but many parents don’t know that because they don’t have opportunities to talk openly about these feelings.
If you’d like a nonjudgmental space to discuss the joys and hardships of parenting, if you struggle with feelings of shame, or you’re simply looking for more support on your parenting journey, then check out my online support groups.
As always, thanks for reading. If you want to get realistic parenting advice delivered straight to your inbox, scroll down and subscribe!
I would also love it if you shared this with another parent.
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