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Take a few minutes to reflect: How did you feel growing up when your parents disapproved of almost everything you said or did? This may be teenage or a little later (so you’d remember). Things that brought you real joy, what seemed real to you, and most importantly, what meant the world to you at that stage didn’t seem to matter as much to them. If anything, they’d even say something as hurtful as “Oh it’s nothing! You’re just over-thinking or over-reacting.”
Hurtful is how you remember it. Why? Because it did hurt back then, regardless of what they may have perceived it to be. Now come back to the present and picture your child throwing what we call “tantrums”, almost all the time, but more when you both are outside the house or in public. In one instant, they start crying and in the other, they’re howling, even get down to the ground holding your leg as you make a desperate attempt to walk away from the scene.
More often than not, we say to the child, “Oh stop this now, will you? This is another of your temper tantrums, isn’t it? You do this each time when we come out. It’s nothing, and No, you don’t want that toy. Enough of all the drama.” While your reaction is absolutely normal, do you see a similarity in your reaction now and that of your parents 15-20 years ago in your teenage perhaps? Why did we feel so bad when they felt the same about our demands?
Perhaps they too regarded our behavior as nothing less than a “temper tantrum!” The point is, yes, children do throw tantrums in public, and no, not because they are children and that’s what they’re best at. There is always a legitimate reason for what and how they feel just like we always had or still have for the way we think and feel.
And no, it isn’t unfair to compare ourselves from 15 years ago to a toddler just because the latter is a child while we were older. Children too have brains and most importantly, feelings. Sometimes, it’s of utmost importance to give them due regard.
Why Do Children Have Tantrums In The First Place?
Again, it just isn’t because they’re kids and they know that they aren’t getting what they want unless they throw a fit or make a scene. While this isn’t always untrue either, I have observed (with my kids and a few others too) that often, there’s something more that eventually leads to the tantrum.
They’re cranky - A term we moms so love to use, especially when we’re outside home and the child starts behaving unexpectedly or, as we feel, unreasonably. The crankiness can be attributed to hunger, thirst, tiredness, or sleep. Basically, each time the child gets a nature’s wake-up call amid all the play, laughter and running around, they’d start reacting to it. Natural, isn’t it?
So why the tantrum? Perhaps because they aren’t as lucky as us to express themselves or articulate their emotion in just the right words the right way at the right time, just as yet.
They’re bored - Think about this. Why do you go to a public place? For doing the groceries, shopping, or doing some other errand. In short, because you have to. There may be other reasons too for stepping out of home - visiting your parents or meeting an old friend. Again, it’s what you want. How often do we go out just to let the child have a fun day? Say, to a big park in the neighborhood or to a newly opened play zone for kids? Not very often, admittedly.
So why the tantrum? Because the child feels bored when you have your chores or errands to run. Grocery shopping doesn’t look as exciting to them as it may to you. Besides, even at the grandparents’ or at a friend’s place, expect kids to be happy only when they have another child to play with. The initial novelty of meeting everyone soons wears off and then as you get busy chatting up, their boredom starts setting in.
They want your attention - You took them out with you because there was nobody to attend to them while you’d be gone. But now as you got busy with your own stuff, you haven’t even looked at them with a smile or spoken to them lovingly in all this while. Kids observe this and feel it strongly too. Only they can’t say it because they don’t know how to.
So why the tantrum? Only to get you to attend to them for a change because you’ve been too busy attending to all the tasks on the list since the time you got to the store. They need you to just spend a few minutes one-on-one with them, to feel wanted and loved.
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They really are upset - Contrary to what we may think that children simply cry to blackmail us most of the time, the truth is that they don’t, at least not all the time.
So why the tantrum? Because they react instantaneously, even if they may forget all about it a few minutes after. But their reaction is 100% genuine and natural. You say no to a toy and they start crying so bad as though you beat them up! But that’s because they really are sad at not having gotten what they so wanted (just like us adults in some way). Their favorite doll breaks and they’d mourn it as though grieving the loss of a family member. This is how much things (seemingly trivial to adults) matter to kids.
How To Deal With Your Child’s Tantrums In Public: 5 Tips
I’m reminded of a phone call with an old friend long ago as I write this. We were sharing stuff about kids when I happened to mention that I dread taking out mine in public for fear of being embarrassed every single time. You never know when they break into tears, start shouting, sit firmly in the middle of the street, or start dragging themselves behind you as as you try to keep walking to ignore them.
What she said thereafter stayed in my mind and has helped me a lot. She said, “There’s one mistake you should never make. Don’t get embarrassed, or even let your child know that you are, when they throw a tantrum in public. They’re very smart to sense it.” She further explained that it is then that children would start taking advantage of it, making you eventually give in.
After that conversation, I always remembered never to pay too much attention to judgmental eyes staring at me the moment my kid broke down in the middle of a crowd. It wasn’t easy at first but I got better at it with practice, just like kids. And I could feel the change. Because I wouldn’t be embarrassed, I’d firmly continue to stick to my stand on how I wished to deal with my child at that moment. And when that happened, it was a win-win for both of us.
Here are some more tips which I hope would be useful in dealing with kids’ public meltdown:
1. Observe a pattern
There always is one in the way they feel at a certain time or place; you just need to keep an eye out for it and be prepared. A bit of observation and preparedness to handle the tantrum can actually help prevent it in the first place.
Look out for some warning signs on when and why your kid may be behaving in a certain unusual manner. It could be at a specific time when it’s their daily time to eat or sleep. Or, it could be whenever there’s a change of place - say, at a friend’s place. Kids are usually most comfortable at their own house - a space they feel as their comfort zone. Just like adults aren’t too happy at going out of theirs, why expect kids to immediately accept the change?
While it may not always be possible to not make them step out of home (you need to go to the market or a party/gathering of strange, unknown faces), preparing for the same in advance can actually help a great deal. At best, try and avoid stepping out at their meal/nap time, if you possibly can. If can’t, make sure you pack up all that they need to keep them pacified when their natural needs start kicking in.
A box of their favorite food/snack, juice/milk, even some candies for the unexpected outburst. Remember, only you know your child’s needs best. And it is only your responsibility to take care of them just as you do at home, even when you’re outside. For the kids, nothing much changes, except a change of scenery. You are still their mom and they’d always turn to you for their needs. If you fail to oblige because you’re out with people, they’re bound to show tantrums.
2. Acknowledge their feelings; never ignore
They don’t always cry or make a fuss without reason. Yes, it may be true sometimes when they start realizing that crying can get them what they want, but it may be wrong to assume that’s the case always. They may be feeling hungry, tired, sleepy, or just sad because they couldn’t stay at their favorite park longer, or their most loved toy has stopped working, or they wanted that ice cream so bad.
However trivial these reasons may seem to us adults, it’s important sometimes to keep your cool and just acknowledge what the child is feeling. In fact, it’s even okay to just let them cry their heart out, even if you’re in public. It doesn’t matter who thinks what. Your child needs to vent out their anger, frustration, or sorrow. More so because there’s no other way they can express. That’s more important.
Once they’re done crying, try and gently explain to them why you had to leave the park earlier, why you couldn’t buy what they wanted. Children can be taught to reason out cause and effect much earlier than we’d think. Talk it out and try not to make false promises of buying the next time if you don’t really intend to. We might think kids wouldn’t remember but they can surprise us when they actually do!
And then it’d be difficult to come up with another excuse, not to mention, embed an impression in their mind that we lied the last time. Hence, be clear and honest in your approach. Remember, as important it is to understand their feelings, it’s equally important to teach them the firm meaning of ‘No’.
Don’t get embarrassed, or even let your child know that you are, when they throw a tantrum in public. They’re very smart to sense it.
3. Just your touch can sometimes work magic
And perhaps it’s all they need, though of course they can’t say it. They may be feeling anything and if it’s hard to comprehend at the time (also because you’re most likely occupied when outside), just give them a soft cuddle or hug, or just lift them for a while and love them as you do back home. If they’re feeling sleepy, just being close to you can help them sleep. Problem solved. And, if it’s something else they’re troubled over, they may just find it more comfortable to tell you now that you’re close to them and all ears.
4. When the fuss starts, change the scenery
It really helps. Sometimes kids get overwhelmed at crowded places. They aren’t used to it. This is why they may start getting “cranky”. It may be difficult to do it all the time but if possible, gently walk out of the place for a little while and take your child to a more relaxed, peaceful space. You’d notice that they might just actually calm down without any effort.
Or at least, both of you may get some one-on-one time (something which they always love). Settle them there, talk it out. Ask what’s troubling them, if they need something. If you’re at the checkout at a store and the child has a meltdown, it may be difficult to walk out, agreed. But keep talking to them, tell them that Mummy is going to step out of the store as soon as she’s done paying. Assure them that you’d talk to them as soon as you’re done.
5. Don’t give in
It’s hard but it’s important to teach your child that they can’t afford to always create fuss in public just to get something. Of course for this, you need to be sure first what the fuss is about; why the child is crying. Is it really because they want that toy so bad or could it be that they’re hungry, tired or sleepy and find the toy a means to express their inner frustration?
Most often, it’s the latter, especially with babies/toddlers. But sometimes with slightly older kids, the former may be quite true. When kids start understanding things, they may try out different ways to make you relent. Crying is obviously the most natural. If you know that’s what the whole “squatting on the floor” is all about, and you know you don’t want them to have that object either, then stay firm.
At that moment, it’s very important to remember that it doesn’t matter that a hundred strange eyes are gaping at you because one pair among them is your child’s too. They can very well sense the embarrassment you may be going through and may try working around that to make you give in. Don’t.
What’s more important at the time is for your child to understand that “no means no” and such behavior in public is totally unacceptable. Also, you needn’t shout at or punish them in public. Nor should you leave them there and start walking away. Just hold them firmly by the hand, change the scene, and when you’re both alone, talk. Be firm and consistent in your approach. Explain that it isn’t going to happen and why. Also that you don’t appreciate such behavior.
Avoid punishing in public because it may encourage rebellion sometimes. Besides, simply punishing without explaining may leave the child clueless about their actions because to them, their demands are justified. They need to be told that they aren’t. Avoid bribing either; they may find that as an excuse to try out each time. The best way is to try and keep your cool, avoid getting embarrassed, walk away from the place and gently but firmly talk to the child.
Also Read: Have You Tried Tough Love?
We may not realize it often but kids are also like us in many ways - with needs, demands, and feelings. And how much ever petty or unimportant they may seem to us, these feelings mean the world to them. Sometimes, just talking things out, like you would with a grown-up, can actually help them evolve into well-mannered, intelligent, and reasonable human beings.
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