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WebMD Expert Discussion: How Do You Deal With Tantrums in Public?

It’s happened to every parent at one time or another. You’re in the checkout line at the grocery store, or trying to deposit a check at the bank. Your child picks the worst possible moment to have a complete and total meltdown. Everyone’s staring. What do you do?

First, realize you’re not alone. Even WebMD's guest parenting expert, Tanya Altmann, MD, has been through embarrassing public tantrums with her kids, she tells participants in our online discussion about Healthy Family Routines. She once had to leave a hot cup of coffee on the counter and abandon her friends at Starbucks as she carried out a screaming 18-month-old under her arm.

Tantrums are a normal part of childhood. But there are ways you can head them off at the pass, shorten them, or at least lessen their nuclear impact. Altmann advises parents:

  • Play keep away. That is, avoid known tantrum situations. Watch for when your child has a tantrum, and try not to repeat the circumstances. Maybe your daughter can’t handle more than one errand, or your son just has a visceral reaction to the lights in your favorite grocery store.
  • Hunger and tiredness are tantrum triggers. Don’t take a tired or hungry child out in public, if you can help it. Bring healthy snacks along with you to curb meltdowns, and don’t blow through your child’s nap just because you have a long list of errands to complete. You won’t get them done very fast if your son is kicking and screaming on the floor at the dry cleaner’s!
  • Keep them entertained. Bring a few new items for them to play with when you take children on long outings. It doesn’t have to be much -- some stickers, a new book, or a toy she simply hasn’t seen in awhile.
  • Focus on the good. Praise good behaviors, which encourages children to repeat them. Ignore provocative behavior and continue what you’re doing while you wait for your toddler to calm down.
  • Give one warning, then leave. It may be inconvenient, but it’s more courteous to others and it lets your child know you’re serious: tantrums will not be tolerated.

One mom decided she couldn’t leave with her toddler when he went nuclear at the grocery store. She was shopping for household staples after being cooped up during a blizzard. “I just ignored it and smiled at the people around us, and finally he gave up. Just leaving wasn’t an option." No tantrums for the last few days, she reports, but she doesn't plan on going back to that particular store for a while.

How have you dealt with your own child's meltdowns in a public setting?

Discussion led by Tanya Altmann, MD Guest Expert
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Guest Expert What is a guest expert?

Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP, is a best-selling author, a working mother, and a UCLA-trained pediatrician, practicing in Southern California.

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