Dealing with tantrums in public


Dear Professor Mom,

I am starting to dread taking my two-year-old daughter grocery shopping with me. It often ends with her having a meltdown and leaves me feeling frustrated. Do you have any advice about dealing with tantrums in public?  Sincerely, Embarrassed Shopper


As parents, most of us have experienced those moments. You are shopping at a store with your children and something upsets them to the point of tantrum. They scream, throw their arms around – they may even throw themselves on the floor.

You try and reason with them, but now you are embarrassed and wish you could just get out of there unnoticed. These situations can be quite challenging to navigate, but here are some tips to get you through these tough times.

Plan ahead

Before you leave the house, talk to your children about what your expectations are while you are shopping. Use positive wording when describing how you would like them to behave. For example: instead of saying, “Don’t scream,” say, “We use our quiet voices.”

When planning to take your child shopping, keep in mind that most children can handle shopping for no more than one hour at a time.

Think about your child’s best time of day. Most children are at their best in the morning. If that isn’t an option, make your shopping trip shorter.

At the end of the day, your children may only be able to handle a 30-minute trip to the store. Make sure you bring plenty of snacks, water, diapers, whatever it is you need to ensure your child will be comfortable.

Make it fun

Shopping has the potential to be a lot of fun for both you and your children. Involve your child in the process. Let them help you make a list of the things that you need before you leave the house. When at the store, remind them of the list and have them help you pick out some of those items. For younger children, you can draw a picture of the item that you need (apples) and the amount (six). This is a fun way to keep them involved and a wonderful learning opportunity.

Children love to help. Giving them a job to do and making it fun will keep your children engaged in the process and less likely to become distracted. Children are much more likely to become impatient and frustrated when they are bored.

Bring backup

You have packed your snacks and have plenty of water so your child’s basic needs are met. Now, there are a few other items that could be good to have as backup.

If your child is restless and doesn’t feel like helping you with the shopping, bring out the “grab bag.” I call it the “grab bag” because it is good to have things in there that your children can play with and manipulate.

A “grab bag” is best used while your child is sitting in your shopping cart. You could include books, toys that have buttons to push, squishy toys, a photo album of family and friends, dolls and toy cars. Each child’s interests are different, so you should have a separate bag for each of your children.

Remain calm

You have done everything you can to ensure your little one stays busy and content, but something still triggers them to get upset. They start to scream and cry (perhaps because they want something they aren’t allowed to have) and now you find yourself in the middle of a full-out tantrum.

You look around and it feels like everyone in the store is staring at you; you get embarrassed and feel like people are judging you (Most people are not judging you. Many of them are parents and know what it is like to be in your position). Just take a deep breath and stay calm.

It is also important to stay calm because children can sense when you are uncomfortable and more likely to give in to something you normally wouldn’t. The rules should be the same in public as they are at home, or children will know they can get away with more when you go out shopping.

Allow them their moment

When children start to scream, our natural instinct is to try and be louder than they are in order to get their attention. You will have much more luck if you are quiet and calm.

Keep in mind that your child is still learning what is an appropriate way to express their feelings. All they know is that they are upset and feel unheard.

Give your child their moment to be upset. Don’t try and make it better by giving in to your child’s demands, just listen to why they are upset and validate their feelings.

If they continue to scream and cry, that’s OK. Yes, it might be embarrassing – but it is an important part of learning that they won’t always be able to get what they want.

Give them a few minutes, (you can take them out of the store if you don’t feel comfortable dealing with the situation where you are), then get down at eye level, encourage them to take some deep breaths and work on a solution together, and then return to the store (if you left).

Teach your child

After you have taken some deep breaths, and get your child to focus, use this opportunity as a teaching moment.

Avoid giving your child a time out in public spaces. Your child is already upset and feeling unheard. Fighting with them over sitting in a time out will only cause them and you to become more frustrated.

After you have listened to why your child is upset, work on a solution. This also encourages problem solving skills.

Once you have figured out something that will work for both of you, go over the expectations you have while you are shopping. Remind them that how they feel is important to you, but that they need to communicate their feelings without screaming or hitting.

Move on

Give your child some affection; a hug or a silly handshake. This will affirm for your child that you still love them regardless of how they behave and help you start again. Once you have moved on, don’t bring up what happened in the store. Focus on what your child is doing well and what they are doing that is helpful.

If your child continues to escalate or have several tantrums and there is no way to get them to calm down (after 5-10 minutes), be prepared to abort your shopping mission. Your child may be too tired or uncomfortable to continue shopping.

Sometimes you will need to leave the store, go home and regroup. This can be frustrating and inconvenient, but may be necessary to properly deal with the situation.

Remember that shopping can be fun, and try not to dread taking your toddler to the grocery store. As children get older and understand how to express themselves in appropriate ways, tantrums in public will be a thing of the past.

Happy shopping!


Meghan Wright is a Certified Life Coach and Professor of Early Childhood Education. She has worked with children and families for over 15 years in a variety of child care settings. Reach Meghan at, her blog or on Facebook:

Photo: © Gelpi