Dealing with Tantrums in Public: Behavior Tips to Ease Your Stress

You are not alone! At some point, almost every parent must deal with their child having a major meltdown in a public place. This is a typical developmental stage – every child goes through the “tantrum phase” – and as a parent, you can influence these behaviors in the way you respond. The following are some proactive and reactive strategies and tantrum tips to help you get through this frustrating yet typical part of growing up:
Child in Time Out for Throwing a Tantrum

Proactive Strategies (how to prevent the behavior from occurring):

Listen to the behavior! Behavior is a form of communication, so you must “listen” to it. Pay attention to why your child is having a tantrum. Most likely, it is because your child is trying to get something (e.g. your attention, a toy) or they are trying to get out of something (e.g. trying on clothes, leaving a store). Whatever you do, try not to give in to the behavior. If they are throwing a tantrum to get a toy, DO NOT give the toy or negotiate for another one. Similarly, if they are throwing a tantrum because they don’t want to try on clothes, DO NOT let them out of it. You can, however, lower the expectations. For example, have them try on one shirt before leaving the store. After you are consistent with listening and responding to the behavior appropriately, the tantrums will decrease on their own over time.

Practice makes perfect! Every week, set a goal for your child. For example, “This week, we are going to practice eating at restaurants. If you follow the rules, you can earn something special at the end of the week.” Create a visual list of rules and review them prior to entering the establishment. You can even make a personalized “rule book” with pictures of your children actually engaging the behavior expectations. Periodically, through the practice session, praise them for following the rules and refer to the “rule book”.

Be realistic! Depending on your child’s age, you may have unrealistic expectations for them. For example, babies and toddlers make a mess at restaurants – they are in the developmental stage in which dropping things are really neat! Three- and four–year-olds have a difficult time waiting, so having your child wait while you get a 30-minute manicure is asking for trouble. If you know that your child will have to wait for a long period of time, however, be prepared with a “special travel bag” – keep items in the bag that the child only has access to when they are out and about (e.g.portable DVD player, Nintendo DS, books, small portable games).

Reactive Strategies (how to respond after the behavior has already occurred):

Embrace the behaviors! Every parent understands what you are going through. Yes, it may be irritating to hear a child screaming in the grocery store, but believe me, other shoppers feel your pain. Just simply smile and say to them, “I apologize. I’ll try to have this resolved in a few minutes”.

Keep your cool! The more emotional you become, the more intense the tantrum will be and the longer it will occur. Your child responds to your behavior – if you stay calm and limit the amount of verbal interaction, he or she will follow suit. Simply state what you need your child to do: “Lizzy, I need you to use a quiet mouth, stand up, and use your words”.

Keep your child and others safe! If your child is falling to the floor or throwing things, attempt to remove any items that may be harmful. Warn others to stay back. It is always best to not pick up your child and move them. If it is necessary to move your child, don’t be afraid to call security to help you if you are by yourself. Move your child to an enclosed space (e.g. your car) and wait out the tantrum. It is best to stay outside of the car if your child is trying to hurt you. Also, if you don’t have child safety locks, invest in them!

If the behaviors become too disruptive, you may need to cut your dinner, errands, or trip to Six Flags short. If you have more than one child and the other is behaving, promise them some special time without their sibling. If you have another adult to support you, he or she should take the disruptive child and deal with them appropriately while you stay with the child who is behaving.

If you ever get to the point where you feel like things are beyond your control, find a nearby Board Certified Behavior Therapist. The Therapist will help you devise a behavior plan specific to yours and your child’s needs and work with you and your child until that plan is accomplished.

What strategies do find work best with your child during a temper tantrum?
What Behavior Tips do you use that seem to make things worse?
Please leave a comment with any questions you would like me to answer for you!

5 replies
  1. Maureen Evans
    Maureen Evans says:

    We have all been there! It never fails that a tantrum can “break out” when one is in a hurry or has multiple children along for the errand! Lyndsay’s tips are spot on! It can really help to shop with a friend so you can divide and conquer if need be! Also, reading the childs behavior can help to head off the tantrum. Thank you to Lyndsay for such an insightful and practicle article!

  2. Katina
    Katina says:

    I am writing to you about my nephews behavior. At the age of 2 he fell out of a haymound landing with all his weight on the left side of his body. We almost lost him. He was on a ventilator for 3 days. After the 3rd day he progressively started to heal and after 35 days in the hospital he came home in a wheelchair with the ability to perform very few taks. He is now 5 years old, has attended a special needs preschool for 2 years and is now down to one day a week of occupational and physical therapy. He will start kindergarten next year with the kids his age. The only visual signs of the fall is with his right foot along with some forgetfullness at times. My concern comes with my sister-in-law. My nephew is totally out of control if she is anywhere near him. Let me explain. If anyone in our family has my nephew (babysitting or whatever) and my sister-in-law is gone he is an angel. He plays well with the oterh kids, he throwns no fits, hes happy. When she is in the picture he is horrible. The fits are relentless. The shining is relentless. If he goes somewhere (store, themepark etc.) and he doesnt get what he wants he has a major tantrum like a 2 year old. This only happens with her there. She says its from the brain injury and we dont see that. Can you give some advice? If Im wrong I want to know so that I can help.


  3. Lyndsay Sarra
    Lyndsay Sarra says:

    Hi Katina,

    I’m glad to hear that your nephew is progressing cognitively and physically. From your perspective, it does seem that he is exhibiting some behaviors that are a result of environmental factors (i.e., your sister’s response) rather than his brain injury. It seems strange, but sometimes it is easier for parents to attribute their children’s behaviors to something that is out of their control (e.g., brain injury) rather than something that they can change (e.g., their response).

    The first step is to get your sister to realize that her son CAN behave. Video works wonders! If you live in the area, I would also suggest having you and your sister come in for a free screen with one of neuropsychologists. They can point you in the right direction. We also have a program called Behavior 911 that focuses on changing children’s behaviors through parent training.

    Good luck and let me know if I can be of more help!

    Lyndsay Sarra


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