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My 3 ½ year-old child has terrible temper tantrums – especially when we are out in public and she isn’t getting her way. What can I do? No matter what I try it makes things worse.

How To Handle Toddler Tantrums

how to handle toddler tantrums

There is hope for a life without temper tantrums.  It is realistic to believe that you can go out peacefully in public with your 3 ½ year-old although you may feel like you need to go to a counseling for children specialist.  Here are some suggestions regarding your perspective, your relationship, your communication style, and parenting strategies to tackle the temper tantrums.

First, it is important to adopt the perspective that you are the parent and you will not be held hostage by temper tantrums.  You need to decide not to allow emotional blackmail by your child.  It is important to understand that it is in your child’s best interest not to give in to temper tantrums.  When you surrender to the meltdowns, your child’s inappropriate emotional behavior is positively reinforced.  Your child receives the message that misbehavior will get him what he wants.  His mindset will become “Give me my way or endure me acting out.”  On the contrary, when you stand firm, your child will have to solve the problem in a more appropriate way.  This encourages better communication skills, effective emotional regulation, and better long-term problem solving skills.  Your child will therefore develop the coping skills necessary to handle difficult situations and to function in a respectable way in public places.

Secondly, having a secure connection with your child is vital to compliance.  Take an inventory of things you say to your child in a day, and it may be surprising how many would be interpreted by your child as “demands” or “correction” or “permission.”  Children also need to be affirmed, heard, encouraged, and enjoyed. Sometimes when parents get busy, they may lose sight of child-directed activities.  It could be considered a red flag if your child is just an accessory to getting your “to-do list” accomplished or getting your child to comply helps to “check-off” something on your list.   Additionally, children don’t like feeling coerced.  If going to public places seems to always be about the parent accomplishing tasks, the child may feel forced to participate in activities that were not his idea.  It is necessary to increase the amount of time spent just connecting with your child without an agenda.  It is also vital to have several short time segments throughout the day that is child-centered and do not include parent-enforced guidelines.  Kids are more cooperative when they feel a caring relationship.   Ensure a balance of times that you approach your child with demands and times that your presence simply signals a moment of loving connection.

How you communicate with your child is another key to sidelining temper tantrums.  It is important to not “ask” your child to do something, if you are not going to respect his answer. As an adult when we ask a friend it may be a “yes” or “no” answer.  But when we ask our child we sometimes expect compliance.  Therefore it can be very frustrating when a child refuses but you insist that he comply.  You should only ask questions that you will be willing to accept his answer.  If you insist on compliance, then it is important to “tell” your child with a clear, concise statement what you want him to do. If he therefore resists, you can reinforce that you did not ask, but you told him to do something.  The next step would be then to provide a consequence if he chooses to not comply with what you told him to do.  For example, if it is bath time and bath time is not optional, do not say “Would you like to take a bath?”  Instead say, “It is bathtime!  We are going to get undressed and get in the bath tub now.”  If the child resists, provide choices in the process of getting the bathtime accomplished: “Would you like to walk to the bathtub or mommy carry you?” or “Would you like bubbles or no bubbles” or “Are you getting undressed or is mommy taking your clothes off for you?”

Always be firm with your request and not “needy”.  The poorest way to deliver a request is to begin it with, “I need you to…” It weakens you, and places too much power with your child to either fulfill your need, or deny it.  Additionally, don’t end a request with, “Okay?” as in, “It’s time to brush your teeth, okay?” Speak decisively and with authority so he gets the message that you are not willing to negotiate..  Before you deliver an instruction, you can say “eyes on me” or “please look at mommy” to ensure that you have his attention.  Then, keep your request minimal and brief.  When your child is compliant and does follow instructions the first time praise the child and affirm his helpful, positive behavior.  Ensure that your child feels appreciated for being cooperative.

It is important to have a few specific strategies for the temper tantrums if and when they do occur.

  • Be aware of your child’s tendencies.  When does he easily get frustrated?  When might he be overly stimulated?  When might he be over tired?  Which situations may be triggers for temper tantrums?
  • Prepare yourself and your child for these times.  Communicate to your child ahead of time that if he gets frustrated or is having a difficult time to express that to you so that a break can be taken.  Be prepared to take a break with your child and be prepared to leave early if necessary.
  • Set expectations regarding temper tantrums before going into public.  Let your child know what the consequence will be for a temper tantrum.
  • If your child has been consistently acting out in public, do smaller test runs.  Take your child on a shorter errand first and communicate that it is a test to see if he can handle a longer trip to a grocery store or mall.  Coach your child through the smaller steps and encourage positive coping skills and appropriate problem solving skills.
  • Decide what the child’s limits will be in the public place and communicate those in the car before arriving.  It is best to keep these limits to 3 items.  Such as:
    1. 1. Respond to first request.
    2. 2. Accept “no” for an answer.
    3. 3. Don’t raise your voice or misbehave physically.
  • Have a reward in place for compliance while in public—which does not have to be purchasing something at the location.  A reward can include choosing the song or radio station in the car, choosing what is for dinner, getting extra time on electronics at home, or a small treat like a piece of candy or gum.
  • If a rule is broken, have a consequence in place.  Communicate ahead of time of what will occur if any or all of the rules for being out in the public place are broken.  Leaving the public place immediately is an appropriate consequence, however, ensure that you are prepared to follow through with the stated consequence.  It is important that the consequence is clear, consistent, and capable of completion by the parents.
  • If the child does throw a tantrum in public, be prepared to leave immediately.  If the tantrum is still active, you may choose to not become physically involved.  If the child is small, you may be able to hold his hand and walk to the car.  If he resists, it is best to wait the tantrum out.  Try to pay little attention to the “show”.  Read a book, check your phone, sit and people watch while your child completes his meltdown activity.  The less attention you provide, the less you reinforce the behavior.  Then, leave the public place and enforce the pre-stated negative consequence for breaking the rules.

By adjusting your perspective, seeking loving connection with your child, modifying your communication, and implementing these strategies the situation with your child’s temper tantrums will improve.

Yours in supporting parents,

Brooke Sellhorn, MA, LMFT

Brooke is a practicing licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  She is also the mom of three toddlers.  

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