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The Dos (and Don’ts) of Handling Your Toddler’s Public Meltdowns

We’ve all faced those moments - demands, pleading, whining, raised voices, crying, screaming and other manners of lashing out. These are examples of how toddlers misbehave, sometimes in public. These moments often seem to occur when a parent is depleted or harried, and not in their best mindset. And even if a parent is, a toddler melting down in public can quickly take a parent to a place they’d rather not be - discomfort and embarrassment.

Children in the toddler ages are in the “I want it” stage, seeking independence and mastery over their world. Developmentally, this is what toddlers should be doing. However, it is during this stage that parents should be helping their young ones understand that the parent is still in control. Parents should also be teaching their children about what they expect in public by expecting it at home, the ideal training ground.

What options does a parent have in handling private matters in public? What tools does a parent have at their disposal to deal with situations that can be akin to dry kindling being lit by a match and fanned by the wind? What’s a parent to do? And what should a parent avoid doing?

Do take stock before you go. Is your child tired, hungry or uncomfortable? If the answer is “yes”, rethink. You are setting you and your child up for a less than stellar public experience. If you feel you need to go out and take your child with you, try to make sure they had a nap or has rested, and make sure they’ve had something to eat and drink.

Do have the ‘magic’ bag with you, or a large purse. Those diaper bags come in handy long after your kids are out of diapers. Diaper bags hold a myriad of wonderful items, from sippy cups and snacks to wipes and an array of toys that distract. Take advantage of the magic bag, and occasionally replenish it.

Do go over expectations and practice when opportunities present themselves at home. Review what behavior you want to see in your child before going out. Ask your child to repeat what you told them; for example, “We are getting cat food for Sassy only”. This way, you both know your toddler heard and understood you.

Do be clear and follow through. Expectations are most effective when you are consistent with your message and with its delivery. You must be clear with your follow-through as well. For example, if you tell your toddler, “If you throw a fit, we will not go to the park”, and your child does have a meltdown, you do not go to the park.

Do remember to take deep breaths. Are you tired, hungry or short on patience? If you must go out, be aware of how you are feeling.

Remember that your emotions only serve to fuel your toddler. Your toddler can smell it, and they react to it. If you trigger, your toddler will also react. A child learns their self-regulation through parental regulation.

Think of yourself as the attuned alpha-nurturing, calm and neutral, but expectant of good behavior. Breathe.

Do respond quickly if your child begins to melt down. The quicker you respond, the better. Toddlers have short fuses.

Sometimes a child can regain their composure if you address their behavior immediately. This works well with a toddler that regularly behaves. Other times, a child may be determined to win the challenge, for whatever reason.

If your child becomes more manipulative or implodes, vacate, calmly. Shopping? Leave the cart.

Don’t ignore your toddler. Engage them and be attuned to how they are feeling in public. Your engagement with your child can go a long way to stopping a tantrum before it even begins because they have your attention. Is your toddler calm, or appears to be overwhelmed by their surroundings (think loud, bright, big box store or a shopping mall)?

Don’t reward your child for undesirable behavior or bribe them if they will stop. Negotiating and bribing allow your little one to savor the first sweet tastes of successful manipulation. A reward of this nature only encourages a child to misbehave again, possibly escalate.

Don’t worry about other people surrounding you. Many of them are parents and have had similar experiences. Focus on your child and their behavior.

Judy works with pre- and adoptive parents, equipping them with new techniques and information, and encouraging and empowering adoptive families through difficult times.  She is the author of the international selling  What To Expect From Your Adopted Tween.

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