Preschoolers and the Public Tantrum: 4 Survival Strategies

Image via Flickr/ Mindaugas Danys

We've all been there: You are halfway through your grocery list when your preschooler has an epic meltdown because he can't have a cookie he saw and now must have.

While you may know exactly how you would respond to this episode at home, what do you do in the middle of aisle seven to get your child, yourself, and your fellow shoppers back on track?

I asked Dr. Deborah Gilboa, author of Get the Behavior You Want… Without Being the Parent You Hate, for some tips.

Read on for:

  • 4 strategies to diffuse the tantrum
  • How to address people around you
  • What to do when public tantrums become habitual
Image via iStock

Gilboa recommends providing an encouraging environment. I was a little skeptical, not wanting to give positive attention to a negative behavior, but here is her point:

Take the opportunity to teach your child a different lesson at this time – one about compassion and love. You're not giving in and giving your child the cookie he wants, and you will absolutely have 7,000 other opportunities to teach him that he can't have a cookie every time he wants one. So in the middle of the store or Aunt Margaret's birthday party, teach a different lesson.

1. Have a great carrot.

Pay attention to your child's routines and rhythms. If you know you are going to have to run errands in the middle of nap time or at the end of a long day, have a great carrot to offer:

“If you can hold it together for five more minutes, we will have a picnic on the porch for dinner.”

Image via iStock

2. Get close.

One tactic is to get down to your child's level and whisper something positive in his ear. As Gilboa put it, you are trying to “defibrillate” your child back into a normal rhythm. Taking your vocal levels down to a whisper can be much more effective than trying to yell over a tantrum.


Wait for them to take a breath, and then whisper something like:
“We can work it out.”
“I've got an idea.”
“I love you.”

This simple tool can often be enough to calm your child down to move on with the conversation.

{ MORE: Stop Hitting Me! What to Do When Kids Hit Parents }

Image via iStock

3. Give them a squeeze.

Pick your kids up and give them a tight hug while they're screaming. It can be hard to do in the situation. However, although we want to control our kids' behavior, we simply can't tell them how to feel. Sometimes being the parent we want to be is the only thing we can control.

Image via Flickr/ Jinx!

4. Create a book of coping activities

Dr. Gilboa recommends creating a solutions book of coping activities that are less disruptive than a meltdown. She recommends staying away from food.

To do this, sit down and ask your child what other activities he can do that make him feel better or that get feelings out without going through a tantrum. This way, you are recognizing his feelings while finding a more constructive way to channel them.

The activities can be can be any range of things: hugging a stuffed animal, doing jumping jacks, drawing a picture, singing a song – whatever. Try to make as long of a list as possible.

Next, make a picture book out of it. You can snap pictures of your child doing these activities or draw pictures.

Compile the pages into a three-ring binder and bring it with you. When you see the your child beginning to struggle, give him the book and ask him what things he can do where you are if he is having a hard time.

{ MORE: 4 Tips for Practicing Patience Through Tantrums }

Image via iStock

How do you respond to people around you?

I also asked Gilboa about how to respond to onlookers to the public tantrum, especially those who choose to chime in with remarks or unsolicited advice. She suggests, as much as we want to make that snarky comment in response, that we take the high road: Respond with as much compassion as you can muster, such as “I'm sure this is very hard to watch. I'm sorry.” Or, comment with something that will make them laugh with you – but again, this has to sound genuine.


Remember, the most important conflict is in front of you, and not with the stranger. And, you're modeling good behavior for your other kids, who are of course watching the entire spectacle.

{ MORE: ABC, 123: What Types of Preschool Are There? }

If you're stuck someplace such as on an airplane, Gilboa says she has kept a pack of disposable ear plugs with her and given them out. Having done it multiple times herself, she swears no one can be angry after you have offered that.

Image via Flickr/ Amanda Truss

What about when these tantrums become habitual?

Many children go through stages of tantrums, but if they are becoming habitual or seem out of character, the best thing you can do is examine their routine.

Is your child going through a growth spurt? Does he need more food or sleep? Is he eating too much junk food, or is there a stressor at home? You may need to adjust your routine accordingly.

{ MORE: Marker Mess? Remove Marker with These Household Items You Already Have }

What do you think? What strategies have helped you through a public tantrum?

For more of Dr. Gilboa's tips and strategies, check out her YouTube channel.

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What do you think?

Preschoolers and the Public Tantrum: 4 Survival Strategies

Tracy Jensen is a writer, marketer, mother, fundraiser, marathoner, and music lover. A working, single mom of two kids ages six and five, she is notorious for doing things the hard way. In addition to writing for EverydayFamily, she survives suburban exile by blogging about life’s foibles at It Builds Character. She can be found at night ignoring the dishes and playing on Twitter. ... More

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  1. tracie says:

    I’m going to give this a try. Im scared my son is going to have a tantrum and bust his head. The kid will just fall right to the ground. It makes me so mad but scared at the same time. I have started putting him in time out when we are at home

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