How You Handle This Parenting Nightmare Can Make All The Difference

Sometimes being a parent can feel like we’re climbing Mt. Everest.

There are so many details to take care of, and each day can be unpredictable and overwhelming.

But moms and dads should take heart in the fact that we are not alone, especially in one particularly frustrating rite of passage for every parent.

You’re in a crowded store, church service, or movie theater.  Or worse, you’re stuck in the middle seat of a cramped airplane when suddenly…your child goes into full tantrum mode.

This is the stuff of nightmares.  We break into a cold sweat, our hearts are pounding, and we feel the eyes of the crowd burning into the back of our head.

We have all experienced this scenario at one time or another, no matter how well behaved our children are.  And no matter how patient we are as parents, it is enough to make us lay down and scream bloody murder ourselves.

Why does it always seem like the kiddos fall apart when we need them to be quiet?  And why does it embarrass us so much when they do?

After all, almost every human being on earth has been through this, whether with their own child or while babysitting or taking the grandkids out in public.

We feel like we’re being judged by everyone around us.  We know they’re thinking, “This kid’s being a brat.  Why don’t his parents teach him better manners or discipline him more?”

But the first thing to remember is that you likely know what is bothering your child when they act out in public, and the way you handle their outburst is far more important than the knee-jerk reaction we may have because we fear the judgment of others.

We need to remember that a lot of what we are feeling really is only our own perception caused by stress and embarrassment.  You may feel like others are staring and judging, but they likely don’t even notice what’s going on.  Or if they do, they totally understand and feel empathetic to your situation.

So now, how do we appropriately handle a child’s outburst in public without losing our cool?

Dr. Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, a behavior analyst, shares a plan of “attack.”  She recommends using the “4 Ss:”  Stop, Squat, Shhh, and Sing.

Our first reaction to our child kicking and screaming on the floor of a grocery store or other public place may be to grab them in anger, put our hands over their mouths, or threaten them between clenched teeth.

But these reactions brought on by our desperate need for the tantrum to stop are only going to make it worse for both you and your child.

Dr. Marsh tells Fatherly:

“First, it sends the message that the child is incapable of quieting down on their own and requires adult intervention,” says Marsh. “Second, it sends a message that it is okay for bigger, stronger people to physically enforce their will on younger, smaller people. Third, children imitate and learn from observing their parents’ behavior.”

First, if you are able to calmly leave the public area to deal with the tantrum, do so.  This may be easier in church or at a movie, but leaving your cart full of groceries or setting down your purchases somewhere is a little trickier.

Calmly hold your child (or if they’re too big, their hand) and walk to the nearest exit.  On the way, you can tell a cashier that you will be right back and ask to leave your purchases with them for a moment.

Take them outside and then stop and focus entirely on them, with no regard for staring eyes or your embarrassment.  Squat down to their level and look them in the eye.

This is where our desire to yell at them must be overridden by a calm demeanor, a quiet voice, and even (you can do this!) a smile.

Ask them simple yes or no questions.  “Are you feeling scared by all the crowds?, Do you have a stomachache? Are you hungry or are you getting tired?”  These questions will show them you are concerned instead of angry and let them know you put them first above your need to get errands done.

This is where “Shhh” comes in.  Rub their arms or back or give them a long hug and let them calm themselves down where they feel safe – in your arms or on your lap.  (Don’t worry about what you look like when you sit on the sidewalk of the strip mall with your screaming child on your lap!)

Speak calming messages like, “I understand you don’t feel well,” or “I know it’s hard to sit in the shopping cart for a long time.”  Tell them it will be ok.  Children don’t have the patience or attending skills of adults, especially toddlers.  They don’t understand that they will eventually get out of the shopping cart or church pew.

Give them a goal and a concrete way to the finish line.  If you’re in the store, give them an idea like how many items you need to get as opposed to “we’ll be done in ten minutes.”  Young kids, especially, don’t grasp the idea of “giving you a minute.”

You can even make a game of it by telling them exactly what you must get in the store and having them help track it down.  “We need bananas and milk.  If you can help me find them, we will be done.”

In church or at a sibling’s school event or anywhere that requires being very quiet, talk to them ahead of time about how to let you know they are getting upset.  Take their cue if the time comes and take them out to take a brief walk with you, get a drink of water, or step outside for some air.

For infants and toddlers, hold them close while you walk and rock them away from the crowd, and sing a simple, soothing song, do their favorite finger play, play peek-a-boo, or make funny faces.

The worst nightmare in this situation is being stuck on a plane, train, or some other place that you can’t immediately leave.  If you are able to leave your seat, try going to the bathroom to isolate yourself with your child.  Even a few moments away from whatever is causing them distress can go a long way.

Wipe their face, let them run their hands under the bathroom faucet for a moment, and do your best to use these calming tips to settle them down.

Sometimes there is no way to avoid these public outbursts, but when parents take a calm and soothing approach, those around you will understand that you’re doing your best to control the situation and they’ll usually understand that some things are out of our control.

Take a deep breath, change your child’s focus, and give them all the attention you possibly can when you’re in a crowded public place.

If you go into a place where your kids are supposed to sit quietly, have a plan in your head.  Expect that kids are unpredictable, put yourself in their shoes, and prepare your approach before anything gets out of hand.

What have you done to calm your child when they are having an outburst in public, especially on an airplane or other area where you were confined?  Leave us your ideas in the comments.

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