Public Tantrums: How to Respond Not React

Yesterday I wrote a FB post that shared some basics about how to Respond not React, Proactive Parenting’s brand statement. As an educator I always want parents to have as much information as possible so they so they can be successful. So I thought I’d address it more fully today.

Angry Blonde childWhen a child throws a tantrum in a store, at an event, or any where for that matter, most parents attribute the tantrum to a child’s attempt to gain attention and choose to ignore it. If that’s truly what’s at the root of the tantrum, I agree that you can begin diffusing the situation by spending a minute or two ignoring the tantrum, then reconnecting and going from there. 

However, attention seeking is not always the cause of a tantrum. There are underlying developmental and situational reasons why outbursts happen. So what can you do when a child has a full-blown public tantrum and you’re not sure if it’s motivated by a need for attention? Here’s how I would handle the situation. I highly recommend that you read the original story, the comments and my response there is even more information there. Go to FB:

If I was in a situation where my child began to have a screaming tantrum and run away from me, I would immediately catch up to her and silently picked her up and walked out of the store. I would find a bench, a curb or a piece of sidewalk that’s far enough away from the crowd so we could have some privacy. I would not go to the car or leave to go home. I would silently wait for her to calm down and when she did I would ask her 4 questions. Are you allowed to run away from me in a store?  Are you allowed to scream at me in a store?  What happens when you do that?  Are you ready to try again?

You can repeat the same process again if she tries to test you. Be sure she’s testing you and not crying to express sadness or disappointment. If you insist on a do-over to stop her from expressing sadness or disappointment you run the risk of teaching her that feelings should be swallowed not expressed. Believe me I know how hard this will be; unfortunately I, like most parents, have been there.  Here are 4 reasons why I suggest handling a public tantrum like that.

Reason #1: Your feelings, just like your child’s, can be a contributing factor in how this plays out. When faced with a screaming tantrum you’ll need a moment to be able to discern whether this is an attention getting tantrum or a clue telling you your child doesn’t understand something about the situation, or how to handle her big emotions. Being silent gives you a moment to emotionally pull back from the tendency to react.

Reason #2:  Children are still developing at a tremendously fast rate until the age of 7. Most parents forget about development and assume their child can truly learn their lessons by punishing, removal of privileges or toys. Because of the way the brain works before age seven, children do far better through relatable experiential learning. Being punished, having a favorite toy or activity removed as a way to learn about behavior is not only not relatable to the situation, it tends to provoke defensiveness, more tantrums and power struggles.

Reason #3: Children live in the present moment. Their brain hasn’t fully developed the neural pathways yet to relate what happened this morning to the consequence you’re giving when you get home or at night. Too much time has passed for it to be relatable.

Reason #4: A child’s brain, under the age of seven, is still at a point of development where words are isolated, not fully connected yet, especially when they’re emotional. One area of her brain acknowledges that she’s upset and crying.  One area of her brain tells her that mom is mad.  One area of her brain knows she shouldn’t behave this way. One area of her brain is experiencing being carried out of the store. Her brain has not linked up in a linear logical way yet so she can observe the situation from beginning to end. Each piece is still a singular event.

Human beings can only process a few things at once. Think about the arguments you’ve had. You’re processing what the other person is saying.  You’re trying to get your point across. You’re trying to figure out how you feel about what they’re saying and more. That’s why you hear people say, “Oh, I wish I could have said that when we were arguing!” There’s too much to process all at once.

Children under the age of 7 can really only process one thing at a time and learn from it. That’s why: You leave the store silently and let her experience that.You silently sit down showing her she’s no longer in control and allow her to process that. You ask only four questions. You go back in for a do-over as you hold her hand or she holds the cart so she can understand how to apply the rules of safety.

You do all of this with love, empathy and understanding because she’s learning and not just being willful.

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