A Displeased Girl Screaming in Anger for blog post about coping with public meltdowns

If you’ve ever had your toddler have a complete tantrum in public, you know how awful it can be. You feel like everyone is watching and judging you and just want it to stop! Public temper tantrums can be so hard to deal with. You don’t want to cave to get them to stop, but you also don’t want the kicking and screaming to continue. Sound familiar? In this blog post, we’ll explore practical and compassionate strategies to navigate dealing with and coping with public meltdowns, allowing you to respond with patience and empathy.

coping with public meltdowns

Understanding the Tantrum

Before we discuss how to actually manage public tantrums, we have to talk about why toddlers have tantrums. Toddlers are navigating a world that’s still pretty new to them, and they’re really not fully able to express, or even understand, their big emotions. When you’re at Target and they’re told they can’t have the toy they just saw, it feels like the end of the world. They don’t understand how money works, or that you can’t just get whatever you want when you want it. They also don’t have the ability to say, “Gee mom, that is very disappointing. I’m feeling very sad about that but I will use my coping skills to manage this feeling.” Remembering that tantruming is normal and developmentally appropriate can help you to feel less angry and resentful. They’re not doing this to annoy you, they’re doing this because they’re a toddler.

Okay, so now let’s go over what you can do to make sure you are coping with public meltdowns.

1. Stay calm (as best you can)

When your child is melting down in front of your eyes, or kicking and screaming and you feel like everyone is staring at you it’s so easy to just yell back or use physical force to try to get them to comply. If you’ve ever tried this though, you know it doesn’t usually work very well. We don’t want to match their chaos, we want to model composure. Take a deep breath, and remember they’re not doing this on purpose. Also, most likely, people are not staring out of judgement, they’re either not looking at you at all, or they’re thinking “ugh, been there!”

2. Find a quiet space

If you can, try to pull to the side or in a less crowded place to allow your child to have space to calm down. Focus on connection. Try not to immediately jump into reasoning or consequences. Just be there with them and let them know you understand they’re upset. Maybe they need a hug, or need to tell you how they feel. Give them some space to get the feelings out so they are ready to listen and speak calmly.

3. Validate their feelings

Validation is an important step in coping with public meltdowns. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel that way. This does not mean you’re “okaying” the tantrum, it just means you understand that they are upset and that’s okay. Oftentimes, children escalate to the point of a tantrum because they just don’t feel heard. Sometimes that’s really all it takes for them to calm down, just knowing that you hear them and understand them.

4. Provide a BRIEF explanation, if appropriate

It’s easy to forget that toddler brains can’t process information the same way adult brains can. We often want to rationalize with them or explain it to them when it makes perfect sense to us. Sometimes, it’s just too complicated for them to understand, and sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the logic is. It doesn’t really matter that that “toy” they saw at the store and asked for wasn’t a toy, it was a dangerous gardening tool that of course you cannot buy them. Or that they are so upset because they think their sister stole their last cracker when in reality it fell on the floor. Sometimes, it’s helpful to provide an explanation. Just be sure they can understand it and they are in the space to really hear it.

5. Offer coping skill suggestions

Remind them of any coping skills they already know are helpful, like a hug or taking a deep breath, and offer any other suggestions that might be helpful. For example, you could ask “Do you want to count to 10? Or we could look at a picture on my phone.” Let them choose what to do next to give them a sense of control. Most likely the tantrum started because they did not get their way. Toddlers so badly want control but they have so little control over their lives. Giving them a small piece of control can help.

6. Debrief and reinforce expectations

Once everyone has completely calmed down, and this may be several hours later when you are at home, be sure to debrief. This could look like reminding your child what happened, like “you got really upset today at the grocery store when you couldn’t get the cookies you wanted.” Remind them it’s okay to be upset! But kicking and screaming and throwing things is not okay. Reflect back on what helped them to feel better, like “you felt better once I gave you a hug and let you pick out the milk.” Then, be sure to set the expectation for next time. “next time, you can let me know you’re upset and we can figure out what might help.”

Bonus tip: model the behavior you want to see

Toddlers learn by observing. When you’re upset or frustrated try to model using your own coping skills. This is often easier said than done, of course, but just something to keep in mind!

Final thoughts

Coping with public meltdowns is definitely tough. It’s never fun to be in a store while your child is kicking and screaming and you feel like everyone is looking at you. I hope these tips have helped, but also remember that you’re human and it’s okay if you sometimes handle this differently than you’d like. Also remember that almost every single parent has dealt with this at some point, so you’re definitely not alone!

Have you had a public temper tantrum yet? How did you handle it?

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