9 ways to prevent toddler tantrums in public
It's a parent's worst nightmare (one of, at least) - the complete meltdown in the sweets aisle of a supermarket or in the toy section of a store - or anywhere outside, really.
Your child refuses to calm down - or see reason - and all you can feel are the disapproving, pitying or judgemental stares of other shoppers as they pass you by. How do you keep a pleasant morning out from turning into a bawling, raging, unmitigated disaster? Dubai-based parenting expert Joanne Jewell gives us the lowdown
1 Be prepared - Approximately 80 per cent of communication is through body language so, even without verbalising, your toddler is telling you a lot: I need your attention, I'm bored, tired, hungry, overwhelmed (the last one is particularly common in noisy places such as malls). Plan outings around food and nap or bedtimes, wherever possible. Being realistic about the amount of time they are able to spend in places like malls or restaurants will make the outings more enjoyable for everyone.
2 Listen with full attention - When your toddler communicates with you, through speech or action, giving them your full attention helps both of you connect. Once you have connected - through listening, eye contact, empathy and body language - you will be able to gently re-direct their behaviour and, on the majority of occasions, avoid the tantrum. Be mindful of the time spent on mobile devices when with toddlers. Phones can distract and prevent you from making eye contact or giving them your full attention - thereby preventing connection.
3 Have realistic expectations of your toddler - Their brains do not have the capacity to deal with emotions in the way we do. The cerebral cortex or 'upstairs' part of our brain, which deals with decision-making and control, is not yet fully developed in them and is, therefore, not always able to support the lower brain (responsible for strong emotions such as anger, and instincts, fight and flight) which is already developed when we are born.
4 Recognise which part of the brain the tantrum is coming from - If the tantrum is being driven by their 'upstairs' brain, then it is coming from a place of consciousness. If they have chosen to throw a tantrum in order to achieve something (perhaps they want a sweet or a toy, or have behaved this way in the past and been given in to, and so learnt that it works), then this type of tantrum can be responded to by using firm boundaries and calm discussions about appropriate behaviour. A tantrum from the 'lower' brain is very different as the toddler has lost control and is no longer able to choose their responses, as emotions have taken over. Stress hormones stop their higher brain working and a completely different parental response is needed to support the toddler.
5 Connect with your child to help them calm down - This connection can come in different forms, depending on your toddler. It could be a hug, loving touch or nurturing and calm tone of voice; if they are physically out of control, it might mean calmly holding them, removing them from the situation - and staying with them to ensure they are safe - till they calm down.
6 Remain calm and use your 'upstairs brain' - This is not always easy. We aren't robots and have our own emotional response to our child's distress or behaviour - especially in public places. The key is remembering that we do have a fully formed 'upper brain' that we can use and which will help us to control the situation rather then escalate it, if we choose to use it. Our children learn a lot from our responses and, as their role model, these are opportunities to teach them how to respond.
7 Redirect - When they are calmer and you can see that they are once again able to use their upstairs brain (this might mean they have stopped crying, screaming and are able to make eye contact again), we can use logic, and discuss what we would like them to do the next time they feel that way. This is when we can teach them important lessons because their brains are now receptive to learning and reason.
8 Reflect - After any tantrum, when you are calm, reflect on what happened and why. This is a great opportunity to learn more about both your toddler and the parenting strategies you are using - did you follow the steps above and put the majority of your time and energy into connecting with and re-directing your toddler before the tantrum arose, or did you feel stressed and exhausted from dealing with the tantrum? By reflecting on our own behaviour, we can re-focus our energy to where it really makes a difference.
9 Be compassionate - Being a parent and being a toddler are both tough jobs! Show compassion for your toddler's journey and be equally compassionate to yourself. Recognise when you are doing a good job and forgive yourself when things go wrong. Move forward and continue on the amazing journey that is parenting!
Joanne Jewell will be hosting Mindful Parenting workshops for parents of children aged 1 -3, in collaboration with Babies and Beyond - a DHA-licensed home healthcare facility specialising in baby and maternity care - on April 30 and May 7, from 8am-12pm, at The Change Initiative. For more info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call Babies and Beyond on 04-2789832.