There are some situations that seem to set off your little one more than others. Don't avoid them -- instead, learn how to avoid a meltdown or defuse it before it gets out of hand.
By Linda DiProperzio
The Car Seat
No matter how hard your child fights you, this is one area where just you can't cave, for both legal and safety reasons. The good news is that most of the time the child is already strapped in when the tantrum starts, says Marni Axelrad, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, TX. "If the tantrum doesn't involve aggression toward others, the best approach is to ignore it. Turn your music up, sing yourself a little song, and concentrate on the road." If you can't concentrate, pull over, but keep ignoring until the tantrum stops. The moment it does, find something to say about the positive behavior being displayed ("Look at you sitting in your car seat so nicely!"). You can also play some simple games with him in the car, such as "I Spy," so that he sees that being in the car -- and strapped in his car seat -- can actually be fun.
If your child is a thrower when in a tantrum, Dr. Axelrad suggests removing her shoes and any other objects when you put her in her seat. You can try to avoid a tantrum altogether by giving children some power when they get into the seat, says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., parenting psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. If they can get into the car seat without making it difficult for you (that is, without resisting being belted; you can ignore whining and crying), they can listen to their music in the car, or pick which route to take to school, or, if you're really desperate and have the capability, watch a show in the car.
The Doctor's Office
For some kids, the resistance to go to the pediatrician or the dentist begins the moment Mom pulls into the parking lot, and who can blame them? Going to the doctor isn't fun, and now that your little one is older, he remembers that, says Charles Shubin, M.D., director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore, MD. "This is more out of fear and anxiety than acting out. Your child is going to do everything to get you to change your mind and take him home -- and that includes kicking and screaming."
In this situation, you want to remain sympathetic to your child ("I know you're scared"), but stand your ground ("But it's important to keep you healthy"). "Try to let your child know if you're sure he won't be getting any shots," says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a pediatrician in Pittsburgh, PA. "This may or may not help, especially for toddlers. If you aren't sure about what will happen, fess up to that. The message here is that you will do what is best for your child, and he can count on you even when it is scary or painful."
Dr. Shubin says it's fine to promise a reward after the visit. "Ask your child what she wants to do -- go for ice cream, to the park, etc -- and then be sure to follow through on that. It might help get her to stay calmer during your next appointment if she remembers that afterward you will do something fun."
You need your toddler to sit in the cart, but he's too busy pulling items off the shelf or trying to climb out of the seat. And when you reprimand him, watch out -- meltdown in aisle five! One of the key ways to avoid a tantrum is to first limit the number of errands you run with your child in a day, says Dr. Axelrad. "If you've been there a long time or it is one of a series of errands you're running, then you're probably asking for trouble." So if you need to do the grocery shopping, try to make that your one big errand of the day.
Before you go in, remind your child of the rules and what is expected of him in the store. "Make them quick and easy," says Dr. Axelrod. Let him know he's going to be secured in the cart (letting him sit in the back or stand on the cart is dangerous) or expected to hold your hand as you walk through the store. You can try to make the experience more fun by involving your child in the shopping: asking him which cereal he would like, if he would like to hold the cereal, etc. For each privilege he gets (for example, choosing his own cereal) link it to his wonderful behavior right now. And if he begins to tantrum? "Look away and ignore until the tantrum is over," says Dr. Axelrod. "Don't worry about what other people in the store think -- they're just happy it isn't their child at that moment!"
The Hair Salon
Moms love to be pampered at the salon, but for some kids getting their hair cut can be pure torture. You want and need them to sit still -- especially because the stylist will be holding scissors close to their little eyes and ears.
First, be sure to go to a salon that caters to kids. There will likely be plenty of distractions there to keep your little one occupied, including toys, stickers, and DVDs. You want to know that the stylist is used to cutting a squirming and possibly screaming child's hair so you don't have to worry about any accidents.
"If your child is very upset every time you go, take her for as few cuts as possible -- this is a phase and not something that you need to force a scared child to do," says Dr. Bartell. "Children become less fearful as they pass through the phase. If it's a must, then sit next to your child and have the stylist pretend to cut your hair too -- this will make it less scary."
The Toy Store
You go in to buy a pal's birthday gift and your little angel refuses to leave until he gets something, too. "These tantrums are a weapon rather than a logical extension of being overtired or feeling frustrated," says Amy Baxter, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta, GA. "Never give in or you will reward the behavior and get more tantrums, more often."
The best way to avoid a toy store tantrum is to manage expectations beforehand, says Dr. Gilboa. Let your child know that you're going to the toy store to get a birthday gift and nothing else. Then say something like, "That is going to be a little hard. If you can stay strong and not [whine, cry, scream], I would love to play X with you when we get home!"
You can also make the trip a game: "Since we're not going to buy anything other than the birthday gift for your cousin, how many things do you think you'll see that you'll wish we could get? How many things will I wish we could get?" "This helps make it funny and interesting to not get what you are looking at, and also teaches that he's not the only one who wants things he can't have," says Dr. Gilboa.
You don't want to have to wait until date night to eat out, but many parents are afraid to even step into a restaurant with their little one. One way to ensure a tantrum-free outing is to catch the early bird special, says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. "Make sure your child has had a nap that day, and don't go out too late so he's not up way past his bedtime."
You want to choose an eatery that is kid-friendly. It doesn't have to be fast food, but a place with a children's menu will help; you don't want to deal with a hungry toddler that wants chicken fingers when there's only chicken cordon bleu on the menu. Set the child up for success, says Dr. Axelrad. "You can have a bag with toys that you trade out frequently that is meant just for restaurants; keep it in the car so the kids don't have access to it at other times." She suggests preparing your children by saying, "We're going to a restaurant now. I know it's exciting. I need you to stay in your seat the whole time and use an inside voice." Of course, you'll have to remind them of the rules, which is normal. Keep them involved in the conversation and with things to do, and every few minutes tell them how well they're behaving.
If your child does throw a fit in the restaurant, you can briefly step outside, go to a safe place (like the car) and ignore him until he calms down. "When the tantrum is over, quietly remind him of the rules and return to the restaurant," says Dr. Axelrad. "Redirect him when you get back and make sure that you're paying plenty of positive attention to the good behavior."
Leaving a Fun Place
Your child is having a ball at the park or a friend's birthday party, and now it's time to go. Of course, your decision to ruin his fun (what a mean mom!) leads to a lot of tears, screaming, and sometimes his throwing his little body on the floor and refusing to move. Yes, your fun is officially over!
The first step is to give your child fair warning that you're about to say bye-bye. After a five-minute warning, and remind him when he has another minute or two to go. When you're ready, don't just pull him out of his activity and out the door. As you put on his jacket, distract him by talking about what fun you'll both have in the car listening to his favorite song or watching his favorite DVD. You can even offer him a snack for the car ride home or let him hold a special toy that he can play with while you're driving.
And if he carries on, don't give in to staying longer! "Part of this experience is helping your child learn to accept limits and boundaries," says Dr. Bartell.
When Mom/Dad is on the Phone
Let's face it -- our phone time is fun, or important, or necessary for us, but it's a big red flag to our kids, says Dr. Gilboa. "They know that while their mom or dad is holding a phone (which we do more and more these days), the child has moved to at least second place in that person's focus and attention. This causes some kids to want to 'take the floor back' by getting your attention over whoever is on the phone."
For older toddlers, Dr. Gilboa suggests first letting your child know that when you're on the phone she may not interrupt with noise. If she needs your attention for something, she should lay a hand on your arm and wait. And if she can't remember this rule, she will have to sit down in another room (basically a time-out) while you finish your call.
For younger kids, keep handy a basket of fun toys or activities that they may use only when you're on the phone. This way, the time you have to work will be filled with privilege for her if she can manage her behavior.
If she can't behave and you're on an important call that can't be delayed, be sure to put her in a safe place (like the crib or bed) so you can talk in a more peaceful environment.
This article first appeared on Parents.com. See more tips on effective discipline.