The mother of a 2-year-old was shopping at Target when her daughter started throwing a tantrum.
Most parents have been there and know the horrifying, sometimes paralyzing feeling. Other shoppers were watching — and likely judging — and the situation was quickly slipping out of control. She didn’t know what to do.
“So I threw myself on the ground and started kicking and screaming and saying everything she was saying,” says the woman. “People were staring, and a couple people were laughing. A store employee came over and looked like he was going to call security.”
How did the 2-year-old react to suddenly having the tables turned?
“Almost immediately she stopped and just stared at me,” she says. “Then she started lightly crying and asked if I was OK. I said, ‘I am now,’ and we finished our shopping. And it was the last time she ever did that.”
While this is not a method advocated in parenting books, it illustrates the desperation parents sometimes feel when caught between a crowd and a screaming child. Since much as they might like to, most adults can’t hole up in their homes until their children grow up, families sometimes need help finding constructive ways to keep their kids from freaking out in public.
An informal questionnaire put to local parents on Facebook recently produced responses ranging from the flip (“put the child in someone else’s grocery cart”) to the creative (“be strategic, and shop someplace where the kids can be distracted by a free balloon”) to the time-honored (“threaten to take something away from them, and prepare to back up the threat”). Other ideas illustrated just how many things parents have tried, including walking away from the child, spanking, ear-flicking and letting the tantrum run its course.
If any of these approaches were foolproof, there probably wouldn’t be so many of them. Which is why there are a lot of books written by people who study these things.
“We must have age-appropriate backup plans, and act on them,” says Dr. Ben Leichtling, a psychotherapist, syndicated columnist, author of parenting books and father of six. “We must be prepared to say ‘no’ and remove the kids. Or not take them next time because they freaked out last time. Don’t bargain or state your standards, and say ‘OK?’ They don’t get to vote on good behavior.”
But it can be tough for parents to stay objective about such situations. There’s embarrassment, unwanted attention and the feeling that other people are judging.
Kevin Cavanagh, a San Ramon resident and father of two girls, ages 5 and 7, remembers the time his younger daughter “went absolutely crazy in an antiques store, screaming for no apparent reason, not listening at all.” He calmly took her outside, after warning her once. Outdoors, she got even worse. “It was so bad, in fact, that an older couple came up to her and asked if she was OK and asked who I was. They were about ready to call the police before she called me Dad.”
Charles Smith, a professor of family studies at Kansas State University, says parents need to resist a fear of looking bad in front of bystanders, stressing that parents shouldn’t let a child leverage their sense of embarrassment in public to get what he or she wants.
“You have to decide where your real priority is,” he says, “and that’s with teaching your child.”
Good parental guidance involves developing age-appropriate rules about behavior in public. Parents can gently remind children of the rules and should pick their battles and decide whether a particular incident in public is worth correcting. Responding too much lets the child know they’re in control, he says.
“The parent should rise above this noise and remain steadfast to the limit they set,” he says.
Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills-based therapist and author, agrees that parents should never compromise the boundaries they’ve set. However, she champions a method that validates the child’s feelings while trying to deflect those emotions.
“Many parents refuse to accept the episode and try to ignore it,” she says. “As a result, your child may think his or her feelings aren’t validated. Acknowledge that you understand he is disappointed and upset, and narrate verbally what your child is feeling. Say it with warmth and sincerity,” she suggests.
Or pitch your own fit to show them how silly they look. That seems to work, too, in at least one case.