Confessions of a Mortified Mom: how she handled public tantrums

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How one woman handled the public tantrums from her toddler.

Temper tantrums from the little ones can strike at any time—unfortunately even when we’re in the middle of the grocery aisle or picking up a coffee to go. It may not be our finest hour, but getting through public meltdowns is a skill in its own right.

It’s happened more times than I care to count—public meltdowns that have my 3-year-old in tears and me about to join him. At a recent barbecue, my son exploded into screams shortly after we arrived, just after the selecting of toys and attempts at sharing commenced among play pals.

I scooped him up and looked for a quiet place to reason with him, away from the guests. But we were outside, without the option of a quick escape or a corner in which to talk. As my son shrieked louder, and I felt the stares from friends and acquaintances, I forgot my earlier resolutions to practice being calmer with my son during meltdowns and to try to work through them together.

“Stop crying,” I said in an impatient tone. My son kept screeching, I started begging him to stop, and both of us grew more upset by the second.

I will admit that the biggest reason I dread public tantrums is the embarrassment factor and concern about how others might perceive my son and me. This perception leads me to feel like the worst mother in the world and the only worst mother who ever had such a misbehaving child.

At home, when my son has a meltdown, I’m able to maintain a level of calm, and remember my mental list of ways to cope and how best to help him. But at a party or a restaurant, with my son’s wailing on display for all to see, I find it’s a real challenge to think clearly.

I’ll take private meltdowns in the house any day over the tantrums in public, but since I can’t choose where and when my son throws an age-appropriate fit, I try to remember that the best approach is to help him navigate tantrums and to try not to worry what others think, because we’ve all been there.

How to Manage Tantrums   

According to Molli Wilson, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in childhood disorders and behavioral concerns, “It is most important how parents manage tantrums rather than worrying about the occurrence of it.” She adds that while public tantrums are disruptive to others, most people appreciate parents who attempt to manage them.

Yes, since the barbecue, my son has had more tantrums—in public. And I’ve had more opportunities to practice getting us through them. It’s never easy, but with time, a little consistency, and a lot of letting go of what others think, I know my son and I are on the right track.

Here’s a list of approaches that help my son and I both get through meltdowns and back to the calm that is on the other side:

Take deep breaths, count to 10. Getting my son to take a deep breath or count out loud in the heat of the moment is easier said than done, but it always helps when he manages to do it. We’ve found that practicing these techniques during calmer times, such as at bedtime, helps both of us remember these options when a meltdown later occurs.

Join with your child. I’ve learned firsthand that demanding my son stop crying usually has the opposite effect and prolongs the tantrum. Instead of lording over my child, I ask him what he needs and how I can help. His answer may not always be something I can honor, especially if he wants the toy or game that led to the tantrum in the first place, but joining with him as if we’re on the “same team” helps him settle sooner and feel more calm. Wilson agrees it is important to join with your child in response to tantrums. Honoring your child’s feelings, she says, is a good way to model emotional regulation.

Remember, everything is temporary. It may not feel like it in the moment, but reminding myself that my son’s tantrum will end, especially when he’s shrieking at the doctor’s office, helps me keep things in perspective. Such an outlook also helps me remember how fast he’ll grow up, because we will go quickly from fretting about meltdowns to trickier things like doing homework and making friends.

Practice acceptance. This is the one that helps me get over my “worst-mother-in-the-world” thoughts.
“Accept—then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it,” says author Eckhart Tolle in his book “The Power of Now.”

When I reframe my son’s meltdown as an opportunity to practice acceptance—acceptance of my son and what he’s going through, acceptance of myself and how what he’s going through makes me feel, and acceptance of the situation, no matter how awkward or challenging—I’m able to free my energy to focus on what my child needs. And this helps both of us get through it. v

Heather Van Deest is a freelance writer and a mother to two young sons.

Published: July 2013