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Toddler Temper Tantrums

Danger: Public Tantrum Ahead!

by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.
Book Cover Image. Title: Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child:  Eliminating Conflict By Establishing Clear, Firm, And Respectful Boundaries, Author: by Robert J. Mackenzie, Robert J. Mackenzie, Robert J. MacKenzie

Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Childby Robert J. MackenzieRobert J. MackenzieRobert J. MacKenzie

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One of the hardest and most bewildering tasks for parents-especially new parents-is managing children's temper tantrums. In fact, just experiencing these ferocious outbursts can be quite an ordeal in itself. Another tricky parenting problem is dealing with kids' misbehavior in public. Discipline, it seems, is a totally different experience when you have an audience.

Put these two together and you have the potentially horrifying job of managing children's temper tantrums while out in public. If you've ever been through this kind of torment, at the time you probably were wondering "Who signed me up for this!?" These kinds of situations don't seem right, they don't seem fair, and they can certainly make you feel like a first-class idiot. Believe me, I know.

How to Handle the Explosive Behavior

Fortunately, there is something you can do about handling tantrums in public. It requires some really honest and straight thinking, and then it requires that you come up with some hard-boiled strategies in advance, before ever heading out the door with your kids. In other words, before you go anywhere, you need to know exactly what to think and exactly what to do.

What to Think

Kids' tantrums are usually triggered by their parents. In a very important sense, that's part of your job. It's not that your goal is to make your children miserable, but there are plenty of times when you have to do one of three things:
  1. Not give the youngsters something they want (e.g. a treat)
  2. Ask them to stop doing something they want to do (e.g. tease the dog)
  3. Ask them to do something they don't want to do (e.g. go to bed)
Number 1 is usually the problem in public. The kids want candy, they want a toy, they want a donut, they want this DVD, they want to ride in the vibrating car. Lots of times you have to say "No," and unfortunately, saying "No" makes many parents feel guilty. Moms and dads think: Oh, the poor child; why can't I just give him what he wants? I'm being mean.

As if that weren't enough, in public there is another thought we parents have when the kids start acting up: What if the kids cause a really big scene, bother all kinds of people, and make me look like an imbecile? This thought (which you can think in about 2.5 seconds) can certainly cause anxiety.

So now two thoughts ("I'm being mean" and "What if there's a big scene?") have made you feel guilty and anxious. Here's how guilt and anxiety make a mess of good parenting: First, these feelings put you on the defensive. Second, this defensiveness affects how you act and how you talk. You become unsure of yourself, your tone of voice changes, and you talk too much.

Your kids sense these changes immediately. They know you! Your guilt, uncertainty, and fear make the youngsters push harder and harder for what they want. It's as if you've said to them, "Hey, I really have no idea what I'm doing and this is all making me really nervous." The kids, therefore, think that victory may be right around the corner. Then, right after you've gotten their hopes up, if they still don't get what they want they feel entitled to a super duper, totally nuclear meltdown.

The reality is, your guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty make the hellish scene you are afraid of more likely to happen! So you need to toughen up a bit.

To banish the guilt, the first tough thought you need to think is this: Unfortunately, it's my job to frustrate my kids sometimes. That's part of the parenting profession. I'm not trying to be mean, but I cannot give the kids everything they want every time they want it. My saying "No" helps my kids grow up, and if they blow a gasket at me, I'll deal with that when the time comes.

Accept that fact. Really accept it. It's not fun, but it's OK and it's normal. Getting rid of guilt is the first step in handling the situation properly, although you'll find it takes some practice!

What to Do

What about getting rid of the anxiety and the uncertainty? For that you need a 3-part plan for tantrums in public.
  • Part 1 involves preventing trouble
  • Part 2 involves managing children's requests when you're out in public
  • Part 3 involves managing tantrums when they occur
Having a plan will reduce your anxiety about what's going to happen should you deny a child's request. A plan, by definition, will also get rid of your uncertainty about what to do.

Imagine this: Now we have a parent who doesn't feel guilty saying "No," who understands exactly what she's going to do, and who is less worried about (but is ready for) any nasty scene that might take place.

When this parent says something, she's going to mean business. And the kids will know that immediately. It will come across in mom's tone of voice and also in the fact that she does not engage in anxious and repetitive pleading. Meaning business will automatically reduce the likelihood of the kids' pushing and pushing (because they know it won't get them anywhere), and it will also reduce the ultimate possibility of a tantrum (because they won't get so upset along the way).

In addition, a good plan will also include a very clear idea in the parent's head about when it's time to stop talking. Always remember: Knowing when to keep quiet is absolutely critical!

Effective Strategies for Prevention, Managing Requests, and Tantrums


Make up your mind what the rules are for the trip, and be sure to tell the kids in advance. For example, "We're not buying anything to eat in this store because it's too close to dinner." Or, "You can each get something for up to $1 this trip."

One good prevention idea is to tell the child that if he's good during the trip, he will earn a treat at the end. Then you define "good" precisely - for example, you tell him that three incidents of minor misbehavior means he doesn't get the reward. If your child acts up, you calmly give him a count when each incident occurs. You say NOTHING else.

Managing Requests

When a child asks you for something while you're out, make up your mind quickly and decisively whether your answer will be "Yes" or "No." If your answer is "Yes," no problem - your child will be happy. However, if your answer is "No," say so, then give one explanation and keep quiet. Kevin Leman, in his book, Have a New Kid by Friday, gives this good advice when you have to say something frustrating (like "No") to a child:
  1. Say it once
  2. Turn your back
  3. Walk away
When you're in the grocery store, walking away might mean simply going on about your business of shopping and ignoring your child's complaints about not getting candy. No eye contact, no more explaining.


So what if you denied a request and your kid has an absolute fit right there in the store? Your worst nightmare has come true and a huge crowd has gathered to watch the exciting "Parent vs. Child" battle.

What do you do first? You remind yourself that this is no time for guilt-saying "No" is part of good parenting. Then stick to your guns, be decisive, and remain calm.

One option is to ignore-really ignore-your tantruming youngster. A good rule of thumb is this: Never talk to a tantruming child! It's like pouring gasoline on a fire. Just watch it happen the next time you are in the observer role: Parent reasons, begs, and explains in pleading tone of voice, child eats parent alive, onlookers groan. It's awful to watch, so take a lesson and be sure to keep quiet the next time your child throws a tantrum!

A second option is suggested by Robert J. MacKenzie in his book, Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child. If your child is having a tantrum after a denied request and you've explained yourself once, take the unhappy little monster out to the car and keep her there until she has calmed down. You cannot talk during this time. (You may talk, of course, if your real objective is to make you and your kid as miserable as possible.) Once your little one is quiet, go back and finish shopping.

Isn't this fun? No, it's not. But if you're at risk for being exposed to tantrums in public, it's a good idea to get your act together now, before you venture out again. Think clearly, then decide exactly how you will manage requests and meltdowns. You'll soon find your outings will be much more enjoyable!  
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Meet Our Expert
Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
A registered clinical psychologist, Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. has worked with children, adults, and families for over 30 years. He is a member of the American Psychological Association and the Illinois Psychological Association.

Dr. Phelan is the author of numerous books, DVDs, and audios including, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 and More 1-2-3 Magic: Encouraging Good Behavior, Independence and Self-Esteem.

He maintains an active schedule of international lectures, and is a frequent guest on radio and television shows. His articles appear in numerous regional and national publications.

Dr. Phelan received his Doctorate from Loyola University, Chicago, in 1970 after completing his internship at the Loyola Child Guidance Center. He worked at the DuPage County Mental Health Center in Illinois until 1972, and then entered private practice. Dr. Phelan has also served on the boards of directors for both ADDA and CHADD, two national organizations for the parents of children with ADD. He was inducted into the CHADD Hall of Fame in 1997.

Thomas and his wife of 35 years raised two children and experienced firsthand many of the problems he now helps parents tackle. He says, "My goal is to help parents avoid some of the turmoil we experienced, and which I hear about from other parents every day. With some basic understanding of what makes children and teenagers tick-and a ton of patience-parenthood can provide some of life's greatest satisfactions."
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Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.