The Terror of the Public Tantrum

How becoming "those parents" isn't as bad as it might seem

Posted Aug 27, 2012

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. 

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. 

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. 

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

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