Most parents have experienced it: that moment when their son or daughter has a full-blown temper tantrum, which may involve screaming, crying, stomping their feet, dropping to the floor or all of the above.
Of course, this is stressful no matter where it happens, but when it’s in a public place and you feel as if everyone is looking at you and thinking “What kind of parent can’t control his or her kid?” you may want to curl up in a ball and start screaming yourself.
But you know that won’t really be productive, so what can you do?
For some answers, we turned the camera on kids themselves: a group of New Jersey fifth- and sixth-graders, many of whom admitted having tantrums at one time or another.
Grace Szostak, who just started middle school, says she had them until the third grade and could be found banging on the doors in her room.
“It was not good,” she conceded.
As part of a new video series, “If I Were a Parent,” showcasing kids taking on modern-day parenting problems, I asked Grace and her classmates what they would do if their son or daughter had a tantrum.
“I’d say ‘cool down, cool down,’ and I’d sit with them and talk to them about it,” said Lance Jenkins, who is in the sixth grade.
And if they don’t calm down? “That’s the hard part,” he admitted.
Casey Wescott, who’s also in the sixth grade, said parents are sometimes quick to just react and may not take the time to figure out why their children are crying. “Try to slow down a little more and … ask your kids what is wrong,” he said.
Fiona Laddey, a fifth-grader, said it’s important for parents to stay calm, “because if you start yelling, it would be even more chaos.”
Tricia Ferrara, a licensed family therapist and parenting strategist who has been in private practice in the Philadelphia area for more than a decade, agrees.
Ferrara, author of “Parenting 2.0: Think in the Future, Act in the Now,” said that while it may be hard to do, we need to forget about the other people who may be watching us during those cringe-inducing moments when our children are in the throes of a tantrum.
“I always say to parents … you’ve got to stop, drop and do what you have to do,” Ferrara said during a previous interview. “Escalating back to the child is not helping anything, because that’s more sensory information that is going to make them go nuclear.”
Think of yourself as a “tuning fork,” she said. “The calmer and clearer you can be, the better things will go.”
Adults should look for creative ways to maintain authority and realize that eliciting even small concessions from a child can go a long way, Ferrara said. “Create one bit of upside, even if it’s ‘you take one breath and we count to three together, (and then) we can get you want you want, and then we’ll go home,’ ” she explained. “What that does is, it keeps you in control and as the authority in the situation.”
The biggest mistake parents can make?
Totally giving in to the tantrum is never a good way to go, experts say, and children themselves seem to understand why that’s not a good plan.
“That teaches them, ‘Oh, my parents give in, so I can throw more tantrums and get everything I want,’ ” said Toniann Garruto, a fifth-grader.
A child might think, “Oh, I can throw a temper tantrum, and I can get a cookie if I stop, so I’m going to throw a temper tantrum five seconds later and then stop,” said Sean Wescott, who’s in middle school.
Casey, Sean’s twin brother, added, “If you give in, that’s going to occur more and more, and you don’t want that to happen.”
Too many parents (this mother included) don’t realize that there are things you can do to prevent a meltdown, Ferrara said.
When kids are tired and hungry, they can’t tell you what’s going on, so it’s probably best to avoid errands at the end of the day, when it’s harder for kids to coordinate their emotions with their bodies, she said. (I joked in a previous story how I wished I had this information when my kids were little. Had I know then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have taken them grocery shopping right before dinner time!)
The “biggest mistake” parents make is going into situations “without a strategy,” Ferrara said. “Do you go to the hairdresser without a plan? A business meeting? Go buy a car? No, but we always allow ourselves to fall into these potholes with our kids with no plan,” she said.
If your child tends to have tantrums if they don’t get what they want, you can tell them that how they behave is going to determine whether they are going to get to do something later, such as play with birthday presents or have a play date with friends.
And during an outing, if your child starts to behave in a way that is unacceptable, instead of getting into a verbal joust with them, you can say, ” ‘Do you want to play with your birthday presents?’ You can remain clear and calm and communicate in a way” that they understand, Ferrara said.
There is always another option when your kid has a tantrum in a public place, joked Tyler Schlegel, a fifth-grader. If he were a parent, he said with a smile, “I’d go home.”