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What To Do When Facing a Public Toddler Tantrum


Like taxes and rush-hour traffic, public toddler tantrums are one of those annoying truths adults have to face. Depending on the day you have, your sympathy for the parent of a screaming toddler can range from overflowing to nonexistent – even if that parent is you. Don’t worry – it’s possible to get through these situations with a certain amount of grace.

When it comes to public meltdowns, there are three certainties you must realize:

  1. Yes, some strangers will be annoyed and give you dirty looks. Ignore them.
  2. Yes, some strangers will be sympathetic. Return their kind smiles, and then ignore them.
  3. The best move in these moments is to focus on your child.

That latter statement is key. To end a tantrum as quickly as possible (and perhaps even prevent others from starting), your attention needs to be directed at your little one. To help, here’s some in-depth information at why kids throw tantrums and what to do about them:

All that screaming and fussing – what does it mean?

A child throwing a tantrum on the floor.
Many factors can contribute to a temper tantrum.

It’s been said that a temper tantrum is just your toddler’s way of expressing discomfort or dissatisfaction, but is there more to it than that? The Center for Parenting Education believes so. According to their insight, this phase is a natural part of your child’s development. The organization listed five factors that can contribute to a temper tantrum:

  1. Age: Children experience various periods of disequilibrium, a phase characterized by increased negativity, anxiety and stress. For toddlers, their disequilibrium phases peak between 14 to 18 months and again at 2 1/2 years.
  2. Circumstances: Any situation that causes stress or anxiety increases the risk of a tantrum.
  3. Temperament: Some toddlers are simply less agreeable than others, making them more prone to tantrums.
  4. Development: Your toddler is still developing his emotional intelligence and fine motor skills, and there are bound to be some missteps.
  5. Maturity: Toddlers are struggling to understand independence and impulse control. This leads to feelings of frustration, which culminates in a tantrum.

One of these elements alone is enough to trigger an episode, so just imagine what happens when two or more combine while you’re out grocery shopping.

Dealing with public tantrums

Of course, understanding the developmental and emotional reasons for a tantrum doesn’t tell you why, in that moment, you have a screaming toddler on your hands, nor does it tell you how to solve the issue. Sure, you could simply wait it out or take a cute picture for Instagram – maybe something like “Jane the Virgin” star Justin Baldoni’s viral picture of his 2-year-old face down on the floor of a Whole Foods.

“Routines give toddlers comfort and security.”

But for times when you don’t have the patience, here are six tips to help you diagnose and alleviate the situation:

1. Keep a consistent schedule

A daily routine gives your toddler a sense of comfort and security as she’s going through a surge of emotional and developmental changes. This helps keep her anxiety levels as low as possible.

2. Monitor your toddler’s feelings

Step in when you see anxiety, tension, stress or frustration building. The sooner you can alleviate these feelings, the less likely a tantrum will occur. This isn’t a tactic to use all the time, as fully expressing a tantrum helps your child learn appropriate behavior, boundaries and emotional management. Still, it can keep you from reaching your wit’s end at the bank, doctor’s office or another public place.

3. Let them throw tantrums at home

Not every tantrum needs to be avoided or stopped – in fact, not all of them can be. Letting your child fully express emotions at home lets him know there’s a time and place for such outbursts, and it isn’t while you’re both waiting in line for ice cream.

4. Respond when they call your attention

Tantrums are often born from frustration, and few things are more frustrating than being ignored. Try to respond when your child calls out for you, even if you just tell your little one to be patient until you finish whatever you’re doing.

5. Provide some down time between activities

Rapidly transitioning from one activity to the next leaves your toddler’s head spinning. Little ones aren’t coordinated enough to switch their focus so quickly, so going from lunch time to the car, vet, coffee shop and dry cleaners is overwhelming. As you could probably guess, all that stress can erupt in a public tantrum.

6. Go to a private space

This tidbit is mostly for your benefit. If your toddler has a tantrum in public, the watchful eyes of others will probably stress you out as well. The pressure compromises your ability to react appropriately, and you might end up struggling or yelling. Take your little one to a private or semi-private space such as a bathroom, lounge or even your car.

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