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Tantrums in Public


Hi! Thanks for providing this service.

Our almost-four-year-old daughter is an only child, and she exhibits this behavior only in public places, almost always when it's time to leave somewhere she likes (especially preschool).

When she does have tantrums at home, I do take time-outs for myself and tell her to take breathers until she's ready to talk, and that usually seems to work well. She very rarely has tantrums at home, and I'm not aware of her ever having one when one of her teachers or our friends are around. So how do you disengage from a power struggle when you're out and about in an urban area? I can't just walk away, and I can't just let her do what she wants (run off into a parking lot, stay where she wants to be indefinitely, or what have you). My approach to violent tantrums in public has been to try to restrain her in such a way that she can't hit or bite or kick me and to, as calmly as I can manage, tell her, "Hitting is not OK. I can never let you hurt me." A couple of times she's left a place nicely but started throwing this sort of violent fit right as it's time for her to open her door and get into the car -- which is nerve-wracking when, say, I'm parallel-parked on a crowded street. In those situations I feel like I absolutely have to get her into the car no matter what for safety's sake and it escalates into a power struggle very quickly. I've not hit her but I have yelled out of frustration. (I feel terrible about it.)

I think she's actually scared herself with the strength of her anger a couple of times, judging by her voice when she's apologized (unbidden). We've talked about things that are okay to do when you're angry (things you can say, stomping feet, punching pillows) and things that are not, drawn "angry pictures" after the fact, and talked right before situations that are likely to be problems about how she wants to act. But it doesn't generally change her behavior -- she still runs away from me when it's time to go and throws fits when she doesn't want to go somewhere. This is a fairly new behavior for her but it is not one that I consider acceptable, and I am really frustrated!


Hello.  Thanks for writing to us on the website.  My name is Penny Davis, and I have been a parent educator for about 30 years, and am one of the Associates who responded to letters sent to us.  I have two grown daughters of my own, two adult step-children and two grandchildren.
I can certainly hear the frustration you feel over this issue of tantrums in public.  It certainly sounds like you are working hard at (and mostly being successful with) being both kind and firm.  You are using lots of wonderful tools that we recommend – taking time-outs for yourself, helping her come up with alternatives, and not allowing her to hurt you.  I am giving you a big ‘thumbs-up’ here at my desk.  

So…having said that, here are a few additional tools that might help.  
Perhaps, even though your daughter is able to think about and express alternatives when calm, it may be that in the ‘heat of the moment’ when being asked to leave something fun, or a place she wants to stay, she needs a bit more structure.  This makes sense if, as you say in your letter, at times it seems like she has scared herself with the strength of her anger.

When safety is an issue, as in when you are parked in a crowded area, or she might run from you, it might help if you can meet her and walk with her to the car, offering her a limited choice, like ‘can you get into the car and buckled into your seat calmly by yourself today, or would you like me to hold your hand until you’re safely in?  You choose.’  If she does not choose, or begins a tantrum, calmly take her hand and say ‘I will help you today’.  Oftentimes, simply giving a limited choice allows the child to have some control, while still feeling supported with some limits to behavior, and can often minimize power struggles.  

Anther tool that can help, is asking for her help.  Can she carry something to the car for you, or help you choose where to go next (to the grocery store or to the cleaners, for example if you are out doing errands) when you leave a place she would rather stay?  You could phrase it like this ‘It’s time to leave now – I could sure use your help carrying these packages to the car – would you like to carry the bag or the books?’

It’s also important to just hear the feelings that your child is experiencing.  Often parents try to ‘fix’ children’s feelings, or coax them out of emotions.  It’s much more validating to simply say ‘Gosh, you are really mad that we have to leave this store.  It’s hard to stop doing something when you are having fun’.  It may not be a magic answer, but often, just naming the feeling helps.

Lastly, whatever you decide to try, consistency is important for children this age – when parents keep trying ‘new’ things because the last thing they tried didn’t work, it can be very confusing.   You are the one who knows your child and her temperament, so decide what you will do, and follow through consistently with kindness and firmness.  It may take several attempts before you see a change.

You sound like a very loving, caring mom, and as they say ‘this too will pass’.  Good luck to you.

Penny Davis  

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