Back when I was single and young, I used to become annoyed when I would see a frazzled parent helplessly standing in a store while the parent's child tantrummed on the floor, kicking and screaming like a wild animal. Although these kids' tantrums only lasted a minute or two, I always wondered why the parent couldn't get their child under control enough for a quick shopping trip. One time, I even heard a cashier say (after the parent and screaming child had left the store) "Wow. If that isn't the best birth control, I don't know what is!" Naively, I assumed that these parents were doing something wrong to have a child that dysregulated in public. Now I am that parent--embarrassed by the dirty looks that I receive and by the behavior of my little monster but also fully aware that I am doing the right thing as a parent.
Toddlers become dysregulated. It is a time where they can recognize their desires but often can't express them. Toddlers have difficulty with delaying gratification so if they want something, they want it now and they can't understand or tolerate the idea of waiting for a brief period to get their needs met. Small children also have strong feelings but no idea what to do with them so the emotions pour out of them in a tidal wave. This may be even more the case if a child is an extremely emotional and sensitive kid--the type of child who is overwhelmed in new situations. As a parent, it is easy to see the wave of emotions as a tsunami and to have the breath knocked right out of you when the child who was a smiling and laughing angel one moment, becomes a raging, tantrumming beast a moment later.
The desire that most parents have is to immediately fix whatever is leading to the dysregulation. This may especially be the case if your child is a very emotional child who quickly becomes overwhelmed by negative emotions. Some parents try to comfort their child through hugging and kissing the child or telling the child that it is okay. Some parents give in to the child's demands (whether for a new toy or for a chocolate bar) just to stem the tide of emotions and have one more moment of peace. But each of these methods does not allow the child to master his/her emotions.
If you comfort your child when he is having a tantrum or frustrated by having to delay gratification, you are regulating the child's emotions for him/her and the child is not learning to handle emotions on his/her own. If you give in to the child's desires when the child start to tantrum, the child learns that he/she ultimately has control and that tears or screaming will lead to having his/her desires fulfilled. This will only lead the child to cry and tantrum more.
Instead, a toddler needs to learn how to regulate his/her own emotions by sitting with the emotions on his/her own and finding ways to calm himself/herself down. The first few times, this may take 20 minutes. But with time, the child will be able to regulate these emotions more quickly and the tantrums and emotion fluctuations will decrease.
When my daughter becomes frustrated at not getting her way or throws a temper tantrum, we put her in a time out. The time out is not necessarily meant to be a way of punishing her. It is meant to be a way of giving her space from the activity and the moment so she can regulate herself. We will have her sit in the time out place for several minutes while she works on calming herself down. During that time we do not interact with her or allow her to participate in any activities. Instead, her task is to find a way to gain control of her emotions so she may calmly return to the activity.
The first few times that she had tantrums and was put in a time out to regulate her emotions, it took a while. She may have cried for 15 minutes without stopping. But the duration of her tantrums rapidly decreased. Within a week, her tantrums were lasting a minute or two.
This is not to say that parents should teach their children how to regulate their emotions in the middle of the grocery store or that a parent should allow a child to kick and scream in the middle of the store for an hour. Most of the work of handling your child's tantrums should occur at home. But if you are consistent in putting your child in a time out at home, your child will learn how to regulate his/her emotions so there will be fewer public tantrums. If public tantrums occur, they will be short because your child will be able to rely on their emotion regulation skills to calm themselves down.
My child still has her moments and there are times when we are "those parents" in the store waiting for a minute for our child to pull it together. But often she is able to regulate her own emotions without a tantrum and the few tantrums that occur last only a few seconds. The change in her is remarkable.
We did not give in to her tantrums or comfort her when she had tantrums at home. We stood our ground and allowed her to learn how to regulate her emotions. We did the same in stores--standing nearby if she was crying for a minute but allowing her to regulate her frustration without us regulating it for her. That skill will carry her a long way.
So to all of you singletons out there who shot me (or other parents) dirty looks while our kids tantrummed in public, one day, if you have kids, you will be in the same boat and I hope that you decide to become "those parents" like I did. It's worth it to allow your child to learn to regulate his/her emotions, even if it draws a few glares in the process.
Resources on tantrums:
Copyright Amy Przeworski