6 Ways of Dealing with Temper Tantrums in Public | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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pixabay sad kidAs a parent you are constantly under scrutiny and when you’re dealing with temper tantrums in public the scrutiny becomes even stronger.

A good part of that comes from yourself—whether you’re being the mom or dad that you want to be or whether you’re screwing up your child—but in public there are always people who think they know more than you as well. There are in-laws, there’s your co-parent, there are your friends, but there are also the complete strangers.

People you don’t know who are in the same grocery store, subway car, or just on the street. You know they are judging you by the way they comment when your child is having a meltdown and they feel the need to “help” or just stare at you.

It’s as if a child having a tantrum means that you are somehow failing as a parent. You start to think, “If I had done everything right up until this point, he could deal with the frustration of not getting that toy that some genius decided to display in the window,” instead of, “My kid is two and this tantrum is just part of how he’s learning to deal with strong feelings.”

We’re not usually at our best when we know we’re being watched. Anyone who’s given a presentation, especially if it’s about something you’re not quite solid about, can tell you that. And how many of us feel totally solid about parenting, especially if you’re only two years in?

So what’s the best way to deal with the over-involved stranger who thinks they are being oh-so-helpful by trying to engage with your child during a tantrum? Some suggestions:

6 Ways of Dealing with Temper Tantrums in Public
  • Be direct: “Thanks for your help, but I got this.” Maybe you don’t, maybe you’re unsure, but you know your child seven hundred million times better than that stranger does, even if he’s Dr. Spock. You’ve faced the tantrums before and you’ve gotten through them before. Your child has calmed down in the past. Even if you’d like to learn some new skills, don’t feel you owe the stranger something more than a kind, but direct, “Thanks, but my kid and I are going to figure this out together.”
  • Use the help. Conversely, if you think someone can be helpful, it’s not wrong to give them a task, but make sure you do the actual engagement with your child part. If they’d like to pick up the mittens that were thrown fell out of the stroller, let them. They’ll feel good and you’ll have one moment out your day that didn’t require searching on the floor for something.
  • Take a breath. You’re not the first (or only) person this Helpful Harry has tried to intervene with. Probably not even the first person today. Breathe and remember that their need to help is not necessarily correlated with your worthiness as a father. Kids have meltdowns and two year olds are not known for making anything easy. I’d personally be more concerned if your child never had a tantrum. It would mean they weren’t ever allowed to express big emotions and a tantrum let’s them learn that they won’t be overcome by the big emotions.
  • Leave the situation. I don’t have any actual memories of this, but my father told me that when I would have a tantrum his immediate response was to get me somewhere away from others and then say, “Ok, now make all the noise you want. It’s just you and me.” New York City doesn’t make this easy, but if you have a car nearby this may be a good bet for you.
  • Provide some reading. Luis Colón has given permission for her article, Please Do Not Talk to Me While My Child is Having a Tantrum in Public to be handed out to all those generous people who have nothing better to do then assist you with your parenting. Perhaps by the time they’re done reading you could be somewhere else. You’re a parent—if there’s one thing you’re a genius at it’s the art of redirection, right?
  • Let ’em cry. You also don’t have to take care of everyone else. People can make the choice to move along if it’s bothering them that much. Some people are able to develop that thick skin. So unless you’re right outside a sleep study center, do what you’d do at home during tantrum time. Witness it, make sure she’s safe, don’t try to talk to them during it, and help them learn a feeling word when they’re done.

I wish I could say that if someone is trying to engage with you and your child during a tantrum it’s probably because of their own inexperience of not having a child and not understanding the frequency and normalcy of a toddler having a meltdown. Strangely, though, it’s often another parent who is assuming that what works for their child will work for yours (whom they’ve never met.) This could be their own misunderstanding of temperament and not realizing that all children are not wired the same, but it seems even more judgmental for someone who’s lived through this to presume to tell you how to do it.

Honestly, always take any advice—including any on this blog—with a grain of salt if it doesn’t have a basis in your particular child. And, as always, if you think it would be helpful to discuss any of the concerns and issues that are coming up in your parenting, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line on email or give me a call.


Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.