This article originally appeared in the Oct. 1, 2008 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
We’ve all seen the scenario – a child is throwing a tantrum in a supermarket or other public place, causing stress for himself, his parent and other shoppers. Parents who find themselves in this predicament may be tempted to lash out in anger at the child, but in reality the situation may call for better parenting.
The key to effective parenting is consistency, says Dr. Heidi Sallee, a pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
“From toddlers to teens, parents should be firm and stick by the rules they have established. When children do things well, be sure to praise them,” says Dr. Sallee, who has four children of her own. “You don’t need to buy a child a Nintendo Wii for doing their homework on time. It’s enough to give them praise and let them know you appreciate their good behavior.”
On those occasions when things don’t go well, the best thing parents can do is to remain calm. Don't complicate the problem with your own frustration. Kids can sense when parents are becoming frustrated. This can just make their frustration worse, and you may have a more exaggerated tantrum on your hands. Instead, take deep breaths and try to think clearly.
First, try to understand what's going on. Tantrums should be handled differently depending on the cause. Try to understand where your child is coming from. For example, if your little one has just had a great disappointment, you may need to provide comfort.
It's a different situation when the tantrum stems from a child being refused something. Toddlers have fairly simple reasoning skills, so you aren't likely to get far with explanations.
Ignoring the outburst is one way to handle it, if the tantrum poses no threat to your child or others. Continue your activities, paying no attention to your child but remaining within sight. Don't leave your little one alone, though, otherwise he or she may feel abandoned on top of all of the other uncontrollable emotions.
Kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down. This also applies to tantrums in public places.
Older kids are more likely to use tantrums to get their way if they've learned that this behavior works. Once children are school-aged, it's appropriate to send them to their rooms to cool off. Rather than setting a specific time limit, parents can tell them to stay in the room until they've has regained control. This option is empowering — kids can affect the outcome by their own actions, thereby gaining a sense of control that was lost during the tantrum.
If parents have concerns about their child’s behavior, Dr. Sallee recommends talking with their child’s pediatrician or family physician. Above all else, Dr. Sallee recommends letting children know they are loved.
“Ultimately, that’s what children want most, to know that they are loved,” she says. “If they have that sense of being loved and cared for, then everything else should fall into place.”
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, click here.