Public Tantrums (Why They Happen and How to Avoid Them)

In this episode: A parent writes that her 18-month-old “has been testing the limits with tantrums.” At home, she and her husband try to ignore the behavior or redirect. In public, however, they tend to give in to their daughter’s demands. She writes, “I’d hate for her to learn she get her way by throwing fits.”

Transcript of “Public Tantrums (Why They Happen and How to Avoid Them)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a Facebook comment that I just received from the parent of an 18-month-old and she describes a very common situation we’ve probably all experienced, either first or second hand, and that is public tantrums. Here’s the message I received.

“Hello. First time mom here with an 18-month-old that has been testing the limits with tantrums. When she is told no, she screams and stomps her feet or makes her body limp and falls to the floor. When we are home, we try to ignore the behavior or redirect to a different task or item to not encourage it. But that’s not exactly possible to do in public. How do you handle tantrums in public? This evening, we’re at a restaurant and she wanted to go outside to the playground so she started screaming. It was a fairly small place so my husband got frustrated and just gave in and took her outside. I’d hate for her to learn she gets her way by throwing fits. Any advice would be appreciated.”

Okay, so I thought this would be a great message to respond to because it brings up so many important points. First of all, our expectations for young children… For an infant or toddler or even a preschooler, a restaurant experience is not developmentally appropriate. That doesn’t mean children can’t function in that environment, some children better than others, depending on their personality. But this can’t be something that we expect — that our child wants to sit for longer periods than they need to to actually eat, wants to be in that very stimulating environment. If there are other people there, it’s very stimulating for a young child. It’s just not something that we can expect, that our child is going to be able to be polite and act like a much older child or adult in that situation. This is why takeout was invented, I think.

Why is that important? Because our expectations as parents will cause us to perceive situations in a certain way. If we perceive that she’s behaving rudely, that she should be able to be in that restaurant and sit with us and relax and eat and enjoy the surroundings, then we’re obviously going to react negatively to her not fitting into that groove. But it’s just not natural for a young child to sit still for a long period and we definitely don’t want her running around the restaurant, disturbing other patrons in any way.

I think some people think that the philosophy I teach is permissive in some way and it’s absolutely not. What we want is for our child to succeed in the situations that we put them in and, to succeed, our child needs to be understood in a developmentally appropriate way. She needs to have our expectations be that she very likely will need to escape out of there and be able to move her body in a safe way, then our child may actually surprise us. I know that two of my children were quite able to handle restaurants a lot of the time and my youngest was not. He is a much more physical child, more active child, more active personality. So we arranged our life accordingly.

The second thing I want to bring up is our understanding about our children’s tantrums and emotions and realizing that tantrums are not the enemy. They’re not something to discourage. They are actually the cure. They are actually our child’s friend, because that is them releasing something that’s built up inside them, stress and other emotions. We obviously want to help our child not be in the situation where they’re going to have that stress and need to vent those emotions and have a tantrum. But the tantrum itself is very positive, and if it’s not expressed, it only builds.

So that is not great for our child, but also not great for us in a practical sense. If we’re not allowing our child to express these feelings, allowing them to flow so there aren’t a lot of buildups and holding onto, then we’re going to have explosions. And they may come in these difficult situations out in public, in a restaurant, in a shopping mall, at our relative’s house. It’s far more likely that we’re going to have a public tantrum if we don’t help our child at home to move these feelings through.  And helping means letting it happen.

Helping isn’t something active that we have to do. It’s an attitude about the tantrums and the feelings and understanding that they’re going to pop up all day long with a child this age. Some are more intense, some are less intense and have a shorter life span, but they all ideally will be flowing through.

That means when our child says, “I don’t like,” whatever it is, “I don’t want that,” we’re willing to hear that. That doesn’t mean we change what we’re doing. We’re willing to let all of these small expressions be expressed as well as the more dramatic ones, the full blown tantrums.So this mother says that she’s perceiving her 18-month-old as testing limits with tantrums. That actually isn’t the way children test limits. It’s what’s behind the testing. The tantrum is what’s behind me pushing you and pushing you for you to stop me, so that I can explode. But I’m not conjuring up a tantrum to push a limit. That’s the difference.

So this parent says when she’s told no, she screams and stomps her feet or makes her body limp and falls to the floor. This mother’s perceiving this as a much more controlled, intentional response and tantrum than what is actually happening, which is an impulsive, emotionally-fueled experience, a falling apart. It’s not a reasonable, I want what I want so I’m going to do this whole act, experience. That is so important to understand.

If we want to think in terms of preventative for these tantrums, it’s about the relationship. It’s about the respect our child feels and the safety our child feels with us. It’s about our child feeling understood by us and empathized with. Our relationship will be expressed through the way that we set limits. I would be careful about saying no, no, no, no, no. Not trying to avoid ever saying no. That’s too much pressure on us. That’s going to make us avoid setting limits at all. But I would consider a sensitive way of saying no, which is acknowledging, “You really want that and I can’t let you have it right now. We need to take you know on the car and you don’t want to go, but we have to do it anyway.”

We’re allowing the feelings that our child has that are build up into these tantrums, allowing those to be expressed as they come, wanting to hear that, wanting to know our child’s point of view, being so comfortable in our leadership role that it doesn’t intimidate us at all to welcome our child to express what she wants. We don’t judge it, we don’t get mad at her for feeling that way. We welcome it. We are going to overrule a lot of the time when we make these decisions.

All these things are part of our child having a tantrum in public. All of these things will contribute.

The most important thing of all in raising a well-mannered, cooperative child is the quality of our relationship with that child. Are we on the same team? Are we helping and guiding rather than barking orders at them? (which I don’t think this parent is doing).

We want to understand them. We accept them as they are in all their obstinate sides and their defiant sides and their testing sides and all of that. We accept it while still holding on to ourselves as the leader.

So this mother then says, “When we are home, we try to ignore the behavior or redirect to a different task or item,” and she’s speaking about screaming and stomping her feet and making her body limp and fall into floor which is all sounds like very classic tantrums. Falling apart, overwhelmed, I can’t handle what’s coming up for me in that moment. “So when we’re home we try to ignore the behavior, redirect to a different task or item.”

Being ignored, I think, feels very invalidating. You don’t understand me. I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I am, and now I feel even more unsafe and uncomfortable because you’re showing me through your behavior and your attitude towards me that I am wrong to feel this way and honestly, I don’t know why I feel this way. I just do. I can’t help it. If you ignore me like this, I can’t feel safe in expressing this all the way. I can’t get this out of my body, so it stays in and then it’s going to pop out at other times. I’m going to be just below the tipping point, simmering, and then the slightest thing, a little too much stimulation, a transition, I’m going to be primed to be put over the edge.

So we’re not helping our child or ourselves as parents by trying to avoid, ignore, change, or scold children for the feelings. They don’t disappear. It would be nice if we could just make that feelings disappear. I feel like that about myself, and I certainly feel like that about my loved ones, my children. I don’t want them to ever feel anything uncomfortable, I don’t want them to ever feel anything that hurts, but that’s impossible. It’s impossible to make them disappear and it only makes the situation more unhealthy for them. It amplifies the discomfort.

I think a lot of this, though, is coming from this parent’s attitude towards the feelings that, again, it’s very manipulative on our child’s part. It’s thought out and intentional to bother her parents and get what she wants. That in itself is a huge misread that’s going to take this parent into a direction of distancing herself from her child and creating more of these uncomfortable feelings. Obviously, that’s not what she intends. So understanding development, understanding what we can expect of children at different ages is really, really important, how self-regulation is developed and how children are so sensitive to stress and stimulation. That’s the key here.

She says she tries to not encourage it but that’s not exactly possible to do in public. This brings up another point that I believe I’ve brought up before about doing our homework. So yes, it’s very inconvenient and uncomfortable when our child has a tantrum in public or isn’t at their best, and it’s like damage control. We have to help them just get them out of there, get them to a private place, help them to the car hopefully with love and not anger at them, hopefully with the understanding in ourselves. Oops, we thought she could handle this and she couldn’t.

This has happened to me so many times as a parent, I can’t tell you, where I didn’t anticipate how tired my child was, I didn’t anticipate how already stimulated they were and then they would go off and start to first behave in a disruptive way. I would try to see it right when the behavior started to cross the line. I would try to see right then, oops, she’s gone and he’s gone, and just do the damage control. But all of that will come up less often in those difficult situations when we allow our child to process the feelings at home as much as possible. We have an “all feelings, all tantrums welcome and allowed” motto at home.

When we have intimacy with our child, when we can let them fall apart and share that with us and feel safe doing so, when we’re not being watched and judged by other people. So, doing the homework.

Then she says, “How do you handle tantrums in public? This evening, we’re at a restaurant, she wanted to go outside to the playground.” So this could be going to the zoo even or to an amusement park or going to the aquarium, even getting in the car to go to school. We have to know that these situations require more from our child. These are situations our child has to rise up to and that they may not be able to. Just having that awareness will help so that our expectations are realistic and helpful.

So her husband taking her outside when she couldn’t handle being there, that is not giving her what she wants in a way is spoiling or will teach her the wrong things, like this parent is worried about. “I hate for her to learn she gets her way by throwing fits.”

So again, she’s not throwing a fit intentionally and she doesn’t feel like, okay, if I do this, I get my way. She feels like, my father got upset and my mother got upset with me and they got me out and I failed in this situation.

So a child isn’t pleased to get their way in this kind of situation. It doesn’t feel good to have your parents angry with you. It’s very, very scary when you’re only 18 months old especially.

“Any advice would be appreciated,” she says. So just to break this down, understand your child’s need to express emotions and allow them to flow freely at home with acceptance and empathy and a welcoming, rolling out the red carpet for her to share everything that’s inside her, perceiving her as she is so that you can develop a respectful relationship. All of that is preventative for tantrums in public. Then whatever situation we need to bring our child into, consider how to help them succeed, how to make it possible for them to be okay, not be overstimulated, not be rushed, tired, too hungry, all of those things.

Consider errands first thing in the morning when your child is fresh, if you have to bring them along and slowing down your pace so that they can be active participants. Child-friendly places where they have an outdoor area that you can take turns bringing your child to if you’re trying to make this work. Being on your child’s side, understanding she’s not against you, she’s not manipulating you and trying to make you angry. She actually is trying to get what she wants which is see me, help me, I’m uncomfortable and I need you to care for me here.

In public, respect means not letting your child be the one that runs around or screams and upsets people and has them shaking their heads and “tsk-tsking” you and looking at your child that way. Be protective. When you see something coming, try to catch it right away and let it raise a flag for you so that you can get the check, get takeout, get out of there with your child, so that she doesn’t have to be exposed like that. That’s respect. That’s caring for her.

I hope that helps.

Also, please checkout some of my other podcasts at janetlansbury.com. website. They’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And remember I have books on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also I have an exclusive audio series, Sessions. There are five individual recordings of consultations I’ve had with parents where they agree to be recorded and we discuss all their parenting issues. We have a back and forth that for me is very helpful in exploring their topics and finding solutions. These are available by going to sessionsaudio.com and you can read a description of each episode and order them individually or get them all about three hours of audio for just under $20.

Thanks for listening. We can do this.

7 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Gosh, I wouldn’t agree with the assessment of this situation. I believe children come into the world with one question and that is “How does this place work?” They are always trying to figure out the rules (ever seen a child throw his food off his high chair over and over – discovering gravity!) and their place in the world. They experiment with their own “power” and how they can impact their world. They push to see where the boundaries are as this is the thing that will establish the “rule” in their minds. So, typically your child has a “meltdown” and is ignored at home. He wonders if it is the same “rule” out in public. He finds out it is not. He has learned something about the world. When I had a young family, we often traveled in the Midwest to visit family and had to eat in restaurants. We explained that going to a restaurant was special and someone there might be celebrating and so we had to be quiet otherwise we wouldn’t be able to stay. With each child, one time, one of us had to go to the car while the other stayed in the restaurant and finished the meal with the other child. Only once. The self-discipline we were looking for appeared. They wanted to stay. After that one time, we only had to say “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to stay if you aren’t able to be quiet.” There was no emotion about taking the child to the car. “That’s okay, we’ll try again another time.” I think this child was denied the opportunity to find, display and develop self-discipline. She may have felt very proud of herself if she had been given the chance.

  2. Beautiful teaching please give some advice for changing routine because my son don’t like it he don’t accept changing routine for everything thanks i loved ur articles because I m also a mother of 4 year son who’s still in confusion that my son has autism or he just throw tantrums

  3. avatar Carol Ellsworth says:

    In the ninth paragraph can you help me understand this sentence:
    . The tantrum is what’s behind me pushing you and pushing you for you to stop me, so that I can explode.

  4. This was a powerful one, thank you! I especially appreciate your first point that our expectations of our children’s behavior shape our reactions to their actual behavior. Do you have any recommended resources for understanding what would be developmentally appropriate at different ages and stages? For example, when *would* it be fair to bring a child to a restaurant?

    1. Thanks, Jennifer! In regard to your question, it would depend greatly on your individual child. As I mentioned in the podcast, some children are able to do this much earlier and more consistently than others. In certain circumstances, it would be hard for any child. For instance, they’re too tired, too hungry, etc. So I wouldn’t say it’s unfair to bring a child to a restaurant, but we have to expect that it may not work with certain children at certain times.Sorry I don’t have a more specific answer for you!

  5. avatar lisa bancroft says:

    I love what you say here. I’ve learned a few things about tantrums that I want to share.
    1. A child is being loud because she wants to be heard. It’s very simple and clear. Maybe she has heard a lot in her 2 years…especially the adults around her fighting or bickering. So she has heard plenty. And it got stored inside. So any little thing in life can tip it off. And she doesn’t know what to do with the aggression and the fears and the anger that she has heard or witnessed. So she expresses when she is at the end of her rope. It’s a form of catharsis no matter what.
    2. Be happy that she releases that stress she has witnessed or heard or felt or experienced in her 2 years. Better she has a tantrum when she is 2 than when she is 30 or 40!!
    3. Just be there; sit there. Say in a calm voice “I am here for you. I am not going anywhere”
    Imagine being hysterical and how good it feels to have an ally who is just there for you no matter what. Someone who is solid like a rock, calm and steady and will love you through it all. That’s what every 2 year old needs.
    4. Some kids are actually hit and punished for crying and disrupting. Imagine if you hit a kid for a tantrum; the next time they feel a tantrum building, they are too scared to release it. So all that fury and energy that could easily and healthily get released in a tantrum, stays inside and covered with a blanket of fear. What does that do to a developing nervous system, no less a developing person overall? When you look at it from this perspective, you can then accept tantrums, and try to focus on being your child’s ally and not care one iota what anyone around you thinks. It’s all temporary anyway. This too shall pass. It’s a breathing exercise. Patience can sometimes simply be silence and presence made manifest.

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