How to Handle a Public Tantrum

How to Handle a Public Tantrum

Those moments. The ones when you are in public and you have a child (or more than one) on the floor writhing at your feet screaming in a fit of discontent and sorrow. Knowing how to handle a public tantrum is one of those chapters that should be included in the parenting manual – you know the manual? The one we all didn’t get when we had kids. That one.

Last week Jayden chucked a spectacular tantrum at the checkouts in Target. For the first time the triplets had all had their own kids trolley and had been able to follow me around the store without fighting. They looked adorable all walking in their little red trolley convoy and as a special treat I allowed them all to put a ball in each trolley for us to buy.

Shopping with triplets

When we got to the checkout, they all unloaded their balls and delivered it to the counter. However, when they turned around to go back to their trolleys, Toby walked back to the wrong trolley.  It became obvious that it was impossible for Jayden to compromise and push any other trolley, despite the fact that it was identical to his original. I then asked Toby to be compassionate and let Jayden have his original trolley. Predictably this request was answered with a resolute, “No”, and his little hands gripped tightly to the trolley ready for the inevitable Onslaught.

Sure enough, when Jayden saw that his demands “request” had been denied, he did protest much.

And loudly.

Cue loud raucous crying. Cue launching himself at his brother. Cue brother hitting and kicking as he defended his “right” to use the red trolley of his choice. Cue rolling around the floor screaming.

Cue mother trying to pay and get the brood out of their as quickly as possible. On this particular occasion. I have no idea what other customers or staff were thinking of me. I only had the eyes to deal with the situation in front of me. I took the trolley off both of the two boys, because neither had been acting kindly wheeled them back to their home then scampered back to collect the children who were still languishing at the checkout crying loudly. I rushed back, took them by the hand and walked out, waiting briefly for Immy to responsibly replace her own trolley like the model child of the moment.

When we got out of Target, I kneeled down so I was eye level with Jayden and had a quick chat. I empathised that I knew he was feeling sad, and that he wanted to push only one trolley, and then I pointed out that it wasn’t fair that because he was feeling sad, he made everyone around him feel sad because they had to listen to his crying. I also spoke to Toby and said it wasn’t being kind to fight with Jayden. We then continued our shopping, and they did quite well.

To be honest, I’m becoming a pro at negotiating the humiliation of the public tantrum. My young brood of children are all strong in nature. This means they don’t back down readily and will tenaciously hold their position. Which is actually great qualities to have as they grow up. However while they are so young, it is tricky teaching them how to be gracious when they are disappointed. Especially when the lesson needs to be learned publicly.

It’s always helpful remembering that our children are learning. Knowing how to share, behave in public and thinking of others are skills that children learn. Tantrums are often a vehicle to learn good behaviour. Granted, it’s the least desirable transport on the road to good behaviour. Children should be encouraged and taught better methods of handling their frustration. But inevitably there will be public tantrums and outbursts. Here are some hints that I use when I’m in a public tantrum situation.

1. Distract
Of course, there’s a point where distraction is futile. But often, if the tantrum is in the early stages, you might be able to distract your child. Use your most bright cheerful voice while you point out something very ordinary extremely interesting. It’s amazing how interesting a mannequin in a window can be when you are using your best senior high drama voice! Of course there is the possibility that you make something look so interesting (there are drawbacks to pointing out toys, for instance) that your toddler switches modes and re-directs their tantrum to the new thing that is in their focus. If so, proceed to suggestion number 6.

2. Temporarily Remove Your Child From the Situation
Sometimes I find it helpful to take my screaming child to a quiet (or quietish/quieter) corner and talk to them calmly. Cuddle them and reassure them that you love them. Give them the opportunity to calm themselves down. Once they are calm, state firmly but lovingly what your expectations are when you return to what you are doing. Also state clearly what will happen if the bad behaviour continues. Of course, sometimes when you do this, the cries escalate, snot starts running, feet begin to stamp and your child makes all indications that it will take an hour before your offspring calms down. In which case, admit defeat and proceed to number 6.

3. Know That Most People Are Understanding
When your child is having a public tantrum you can often the burn of disapproving eyes on you and your child. Reassure yourself that in fact a lot of people are quite understanding. I know it doesn’t always feel like it. Because let’s face it, often we don’t even want to turn around and check out the expressions on the people around us. Of course, occassionally there is a situation where you are literally being judged by everyone around you. If so, proceed directly to number 6.

4. Recognise the Root Cause
Sometimes we need to pause and consider what is happening in our child’s life. Your child may simply be venting because they are worried about the dentist appointment that afternoon or they are feeling insecure because they are uncertain of how to behave in this situation. Children who enjoy routine can often just be unsettled by being outside the home. Acknowledge what they are feeling. Give their concerns words. Give them a hug and let them know that you are willing to guide them through their frustration. Of course, sometimes you may have correctly identified the root cause, you chat to them, hug them and they scream louder. If so, you may want to proceed directly to number 6.

5. Keep the Bigger Picture in Perspective
I constantly do this when I am parenting. Why do I want to deal with this issue in public? Really. It’s so much easier to deal with tantrums privately. Bigger picture thinking makes you realise that by dealing with this issue as it happens, you are in fact teaching your child how to behave in public. You are actually working towards this happening less in the future. If you retreat every time a child throws a tantrum, your child learns that they can completely manipulate you during public outings. However, some days you know you or your child is just too tired to deal with a tantrum in public. In which case, Hold your head high knowing you are doing what is best for you and your child in that moment and that despite what people are thinking, you have a large array of strategies that you implement other times and proceed to number 6.

6. Ignore All Above Suggestions, Do Whatever You Can to Retreat and Get the Hell Out!
Some days, there’s just no winning. Recognise those days, and do whatever you can to withdraw in a hasty retreat. Wave the white flag. Or not. The white flag may not even withstand the destruction of a toddler/preschoolers rage. Training can be done another day, save your own sanity woman!!!! (Or Man, there is no gender bias when it comes to being defeated by a small fry.) Get to the car as quickly as you can.  Try not to screech the tyres in your retreat, but if you need to enhance the drama – go ahead. Make your exit spectacular! Ugly crying may accompany this retreat. Embrace the emotions. You are not the first to be brought to their knees by their wild progeny.

Shopping with triplets for balls
Moments before the epic showdown.


There is no shame being beaten by a bambino providing you raise your head and live to fight train another day. You can be assured of this. The same issue will come up – the odds are with you that the issue will surface imminently. Believe in your child, believe that they can learn to negotiate, believe that they actually don’t want to tantrum but rather that they want, need and desire the security of boundaries. And know this. If I am in the crowd as the battle lines are drawn, whether I catch your eye and give you an encouraging smile or not, I’m cheering for you because the fact that you are dealing with a tantrum publicly immediately is a public declaration that you are a good parent. Further then good – you are an excellent and outstanding (and brave) parent.


Has your child every had a spectacular public tantrum? What works best for you when you are faced with a child having a public tantrum?

Joining with Essentially Jess and IBOT.




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    1. I tried it once before – and you guessed it! Public tantrum. They all were melting down everytime I put something in one of their trolleys because the other two would want that in their trolley and the one who had it was crying in protest of the others trying to get it. I almost retreated in number 6 pattern, but we reached an uneasy truce when the little trolleys were put away and I piled them all into one big trolley. I was so proud of them most of the expedition!

  1. All good points!! I use distraction a lot, or talking to my son, or just getting the hell out of there. He has only thrown a couple of good tantrums in public, but I think I handled them okay. It really doesn’t worry me what everyone else thinks. I just do what I can and hopefully that works. You are right though….you do have to control it right there and then. Otherwise kids will just think it’s okay to tantrum anywhere they feel necessary……and we definitely don’t want that!

    1. No we definitely don’t want more tantrums then necessary! Minimising the occurrences is a priority, that’s for sure! I’m sure you handled your tantrum throwers beautifully also, I think not worrying about others is a key.

  2. Gosh, you did an awesome job! What a legend. I always feel for parents in this situation, as you can see how hot under the collar they get and it’s mostly through humiliation or shame, thinking that they are being judged. Well done you for keeping your cool and focusing on the situation instead of the perceived thoughts of strangers.

  3. Wow I take my hat off to you coping with toddler tantrums potentially times three. Miss 18 was an epic tantrum thrower. All I could do was pick her up (thrashing arms and legs and all), carry her back to the car and force her into her car seat. She usually stopped screaming and crying by the time we got home – whereas I’d just started (crying that is)!

  4. Ahh it can be like the flick of a switch, can’t it?! One minute they’re happy as Larry, the next minute all hell breaks loose and you’re left reeling. I love your tips and I do try to follow all of them. I’m a big fan of getting down on their level. Meanwhile, they do look super cute with those trolleys. You must be a proud mum x

  5. A refreshing read Caitlin. I had a chuckle at your last point. With a 4 year old and 2 3 year olds I think I’ve had my share of public tantrums and always find it unsettling! You handled the situation so calmly. Well done!

  6. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a public meltdown thankfully! Only one of mine actually liked crying in public loudly, while the others were too embarrassed.
    I used to find that leaning down and firmly squeezing their hand while talking was effective too. It wasn’t painful, it just really got their attention.

  7. We only had a handful of tantrums with DS 1 fortunately, I don’t think we are going to be as lucky with number 2! I think most people understand and commiserate – the best thing that happened for me was a lady around mums age coming up to me while he was screaming and saying. ‘You got this mum, you are doing an awesome job, we’ve all been there!!’

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