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Dealing with Public Temper Tantrums

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 by:

Ah, the public tantrum–don’t you love those? It can be mortifying when your little one throws herself on the floor screaming and you feel like the whole world is judging your parenting skills.

Some kids know they can use these public fits to get what they want, others are just tired or over stimulated and don’t know what else to do. Either way, it is so important to handle the situation properly, to ensure that the moment becomes a thing of the past–and to make sure that, in the future, your child will be able to regulate her behaviour when you go out.

The first thing we all need to remember is that talking through your teeth and “whisper screaming” (as one child I worked with called it), is not an effective way to handle a tantrum. While we may think that this tactic is less obvious to those around us, it usually has the exact opposite effect. The key is to forget about what others think and react in public the same way you would at home. Just say to yourself “Ok , here we go, everyone enjoy the show.” The child will learn there is not a difference between outside and inside the home. My recommendation in either setting is to be neutral–yelling never works. Stay calm as you try to respond to the behaviour.

Before you even get into a tantrum situation, frontload your child so they know what will happen if they behave a certain way, help them to make a good choice and above all follow through–don’t make threats that you will not follow through on.

For example, on your way to the mall, empathize with them and say, “You’re going to see all kinds of awesome toys and things you really want, but we are buying a present for your cousins, okay?” They will likely agree until you are in the store and they see something they want. This is where you will get that feeling in your stomach where you think “oh no, here we go, I really don’t want to deal with this.” Breathe through this feeling and ready yourself. Never fear the tantrum, it always makes things worse.

As things escalate, make a couple of mirroring statements: “that is such a cool toy; that’s the one you saw on TV; I get why you want it because it’s so cool.” In my book Connected Parenting, I describe how to mirror using the CALM technique. Essentially, mirroring is a therapist’s technique that helps create a safe place for the child, builds resilience and increases compliance. It is also an effective tool to help children organize and regulate their emotions.

If she still escalates, just tell her you have tried to understand, but that she cannot have the toy. Tell her to go ahead and have a fit and you will wait for her to finish. I love this technique because they will often not meltdown because you have paradoxically allowed it.

The final thing to try is what I call an intervention. Go to the mall or restaurant–not for a nice meal or to do some shopping–but for the sole purpose of leaving if they meltdown. Follow the steps above and then leave if you have to. You won’t be upset because you were prepared to leave anyway and they will learn that you mean business. You will definitely enjoy a peaceful outing next time.

Jennifer Kolari is a child and parent therapist, and found of Connected Parenting. For more information you can contact Jennifer at or visit

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