As promised, here are a few practical suggestions for how to prevent and handle public tantrums. Some may be more helpful than others, but these are a few ideas from Mom that have served my sisters and me with going on ten toddlers now.
1. Stay Home
Your child won’t throw a public tantrum if you are not out in public, right? In all seriousness, if a small child is frequently throwing public tantrums, this is a sign that he probably needs more consistent discipline and instruction at home.
This was always my mom’s wise advice when one of my children would start to disobey a lot in public: it was time to stay home for a while and focus on child training. I would clear my calendar of play dates, make arrangements to run errands after my kids went to bed, and except for church, hunker down for some focused child-training time. Often, after only a few days, I would begin to see dramatic improvement.
Being a mom means missing out on a lot so that we can give lots of attention to our children. But the sacrifice is worth it.
2. Train to go
While at home, we would train to go out. The idea is to choose a place or situation where your child most often disobeys, or where you most need her to obey. Then practice “church,” “grocery shopping,” “play dates,” “sit cheerfully,” or “time to go.”
For example, my sister Kristin trained her young boys to sit in their stroller or (when they got older) hold onto the stroller, by taking daily walks around the block. Another friend I know practiced “church” with her kids by having them sit quietly in chairs and listen to part of a sermon or sing a worship song. Or you can do a daily role-play of “time to go” where you practice and praise a cheerful, obedient, response to that command.
The more you require self-control and train to obey at home, the more likely you are to prevent public tantrums.
3. Prepare to go
Choose your time wisely – Avoid going out when your small child is especially hungry or tired. Now you may have to go to the grocery store for milk or attend a family wedding over what is usually nap time, but in general, think ahead so you can avoid creating unnecessarily tempting situations for your children.
Bring distractions – I always used to bring a snack from home for the kids to munch on at the grocery store, coloring for an evening church meeting, or toys to play with while I made a return. These are not bribes to elicit good behavior, but rather distractions to minimize temptation in the first place.
Talk to them – if your child is old enough to understand, explain what will happen and how you expect them to obey. For example: “We, are going to the park with your friends and then we will come home for lunch. When mommy says it is time to go, you are to come right away with a happy heart.” Then you can have them repeat it back to be sure they understand: “So what do you do when Mommy says time to go?”
4. Maintain authority
By keeping them contained – Keeping a child strapped in a stroller, cart, or high chair, or requiring them to hold your hand or sit in a chair teaches them self-control and obedience. It also alleviates all kinds of temptations that crop up when we allow children to run free in stores, restaurants, or meetings. My sisters and I found that consistent training and enforcement in this area eventually made it possible to take our children almost anywhere, and our children became happier and more contented as well.
By limiting commands – Pick your battles in public so you can be consistent in your authority. So, for example, it might not be wise to insist a two-year-old say “Hi” to a friend you meet in the store if you know they probably won’t comply and you can’t follow through.
And try distraction before instruction. So if a small child begins to get whiney, tell them a story or point out something fun instead of starting with “No whining.” Our goal: as much as possible to eliminate situations where our children can defy our authority without appropriate discipline.
By going home – My mom said that when we were little, she left many a grocery cart full of groceries and took us home, rather than give in to our demands. I remember I often had to leave playgroups or parks early if my son would not obey. Now of course we can’t always leave a public place early; but as much possible, we want to demonstrate to our children that they cannot get their own way by throwing a tantrum. Over time, they will get the point.
5. Don’t forget to laugh
Janelle once told me about a time she had to leave early from dinner at someone’s house because her daughter was throwing a tantrum. Janelle was being consistent to discipline at home, so she chose to laugh at herself and the situation—a great expression of humility and put the hosts at ease as well. And laughter helps to fight off despair. You are probably going to laugh about this tantrum someday. It will do your soul good to start now.
Oh, and one more thing—encourage, encourage, encourage when a child obeys in public. This will greatly increase incentive for a tantrum free next time!
None of this is easy, I know. Motherhood is hard work, and most of the time it is extremely hard work. There is no trick or formula for instantly eliminating public tantrums, and some kids will be more difficult to train than others. But the God who has blessed us with children and called us to teach and train them will give us grace to persevere and one day bring about the sweet fruit of self-control in their little lives. Let’s look to our Savior for help and hope as we persevere.