When our kids begin to lose their wits in public – whether angry, sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed – it can be a comedy of trials and errors to figure out what will calm them at that particular moment. As with so many parenting circumstances, what works this week may not work next week and vice versa.
In the long run, we’re trying to give our kids tools to self-regulate their emotions. In the short run, we’re trying to get out of the grocery store with our food, our child, and our dignity intact.
I’ve learned from five years of parenting experience that once a temper tantrum is in full swing, there’s no stopping it. The trick is to read the early warning signs: the eye rub, the whine, the death stare, the slow blink, the sensitivity, or the sibling in-fighting.
When the temper tantrum red flags start to wave in public, use these four tricks to stop a full-blown meltdown.
1. Head them off at the whine
Be on guard. As soon as you see a sign that your child is close to her limit, stop what you’re doing and give her your full and undivided attention for a moment. Meltdowns happen most often when a child’s needs are not being met. She needs to eat or drink. She needs to rest. She needs interaction.
Stop, assess your child’s needs and reprioritize accordingly.
"You must be hungry. Let’s get you a snack."
"You’re bored. Why don’t you help me put stamps on these envelopes?"
"You’re tired. Let’s see how many groceries we can buy in the next five minutes and we’ll get you home."
2. The best defense is a good distraction
If you’re angry, would you rather a friend take you for a walk, or have a friend tell you to "just relax"? I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me to relax or calm down, I have the exact opposite reaction.
Saying, "Don’t get so upset," has never stopped a kid from getting upset.
Instead, use the art of distraction. This technique works especially well when kids are arguing over a toy, have their feelings hurt, or are obsessing over a perceived "injury."
I avoided this technique for a while because I thought all behavior and feelings should be addressed and "dealt with." Then I realized how important it is to teach our kids to let things go and cheer themselves up.
"Your friend is playing with that car right now, but look what this robot does!"
"It’s okay if your friend doesn’t want to play kitchen. Do you think you could make me a birthday cake?"
"I’m sorry about the minuscule scratch on your thumb. Help me put the groceries on the conveyor belt."
3. The squeaky wheel gets ignored
As a dance teacher of young kids for many years, I’ve learned the difference between an authentic signal of painful feelings and a desperate attempt to garner attention.
If a student is sincerely upset, her body language changes and she most often tries to avoid eye contact with me or any other student.
In contrast, a student who seeks attention performs exaggerated expressions of being upset (loud sighs, folded arms, forced tears) and keeps looking to see if I’m watching. I never am—at least not where she can see.
Nine times out of ten I can get students to stop pouting and start engaging by ignoring their attempts to get negative attention and encouraging them as soon as they decide to participate.
If you walk into a situation and your child is reluctant or pouting, act as if you don’t see it. Engage cheerfully in an activity and as soon as your child joins, give him positive attention. This is an especially effective technique in parent-and-me classes or at parties. Instead of asking your child what would make him happy, just start participating.
"I love this song. I can’t wait to dance."
"Oh, look at this art table! I’m going to make a picture of a dog."
"That swing set is calling my name."
4. It’s not you, it’s me...and you
Let’s just be honest—sometimes your kids only have a problem with you or around you. They may handle things totally differently in front of a teacher, a friend, or even their other parent.
My daughter has never had a meltdown I didn’t witness. She has no behavior problems at school or with babysitters, but she definitely displays "big emotions" with me. Once I brought her to daycare in the midst of a meltdown, and the owner was shocked to see her acting like that. I didn’t know what to do. The owner looked at me and said, "Leave. Quickly."
I did, and five minutes later I got a text from the daycare saying that everything was fine as soon as I left. As a teacher, I’ve been able to stop meltdowns in their tracks as long as the parent leaves me to do it. I’ve even seen random strangers in stores be able to distract kids who are about to lose it.
Sometimes you just have to remove yourself from the equation. Let another parent try to distract your child or let a teacher or friend take over. Plus, a break gives you a chance to regain your patience.
"Daddy’s going to blow up this balloon for you. I’m going to get a drink before I blow up."
"Let’s let Ms. Jeanne tie your shoe, since you won’t let me touch it."
"Aunt Karen is going to get you a piece of cake. I’ve got to get something out of the car (and it’ll take me about twenty minutes)."
The best way to stop a meltdown in public is to avoid a meltdown. As soon as the warning signs begin, take swift action. And if there is no avoiding a public meltdown, my sympathies are with you. I’ve been there once or twice. We all have.