I'm not sure what it is about being in public that seems to make toddlers want to present their worst behavior. Perhaps it's all those people around to watch react, or maybe it's the excitement of being out of the house. Regardless of the motivation, no parent slides by without at least one public toddler meltdown, unless, of course, they keep their child locked inside until they're 18. Being the red-faced parent struggling with a toddler throwing a tantrum under judging eyes isn't any fun. Nobody would argue that. All that anyone can do is offer some tips for this unavoidable disciplinary face-off.
1. Get off to a good start.
Always make sure your toddler is rested, fed, feeling well, and in good spirits when you leave the house, if possible. The better the mood your child is in when you leave, the longer it will take for them to degrade into a little demon you don't want to claim as your own, and the less likely they'll be to do so.
2. Consider prevention your number one concern.
You without a doubt can't prevent every tantrum your toddler will throw in public. However, you can reduce their occurrence. When in public watch for frustration building and disarm it if needed. Also, try to avoid trouble areas. For example, in the store if you know the candy aisle often triggers a fit, don't go down that aisle or park your toddler within sight and walk down it without them.
3. Be clear about your expectations.
You may think that the last five times it happened and the discipline that followed would let your child in on what's expected in public, but you have to remember you're dealing with a toddler. They are impulsive, forgetful and easily distracted. Right before you take that step from private to public, take a moment to give your child a refresher on what is expected of them behavior-wise. If you have a repeat offender, some pretend play at home may help. A good game of grocery store at home can offer risk-free practice for kids.
4. Consider offering rewards.
Nobody wants their child to expect a reward every time they go out in public, but you can squeeze in positive reinforcement in sneakier ways than bribery. Always be sure to praise your child's good behavior just as much as you punish the bad. You can also use things you already planned to give to your child such as their favorite snack or extra time on the swings as small rewards. Avoid saying, "If you are good you can have/do...", rather say something like, "Only good kids get to..." or "You can earn... for being good."
5. Don't alter your usual disciplinary actions because you're in public.
Many parents, including myself, worry initially what onlookers will think when they are disciplining their kids. Nothing makes a public tantrum worse than having some busybody step in and critique your parenting skills. If you lack consistency in your discipline, you will actually teach your toddler the rules change in public. They will remember and exploit that.
6. Don't worry about everyone else.
This one was a hard one for me to learn. I'd heard so many horror stories from parents about having child-protective services called on them for their reactions to public tantrums that I walked on egg shells with my toddlers in the public eye. Eventually, however, I realized that I wasn't doing anything wrong. Those that aren't guilty don't have any reason to fear punishment. Pay no mind to the dirty looks or whispers and try to remember that every parent has been or will be in your shoes someday.
7. Go down to eye level when you talk to your child.
If your toddler is doing something obnoxious in public, come down to their level, look them dead in the eye and tell them. The power of eye contact is highly under-rated with many parents. This also ensures your toddler heard you.
8. Don't be afraid to make an exit.
No matter where you are, if a tantrum erupts don't feel ashamed to take your toddler out to the car or to a quiet place to take a moment. Removing them from the activity acts as a punishment as well as gives them time to re-boot, so to speak, and let go of the emotion that causes tantrums. Even if you have a cart full of groceries, just leave it by a check-stand and let them know you'll be right back.
9. Remain calm.
It can be hard to refrain from reacting to a toddler who is throwing a massive tantrum. However, the less reaction you exhibit the better. If your toddler gets a reaction, he/she is more likely to continue the behavior. Don't raise your voice. Don't appear angry. Just carry out your disciplinary plan as if it doesn't even faze you.
10. Remember that there is always next time.
The great thing about being a parent is that no matter how badly one experience turns out there will be 18 years of opportunity to give it another go. One single bad public outing may ruin that trip, but that doesn't mean it has to ruin your day. If you focus on the positive aspects of any situation, the negative seems less important.
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