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Field Guide to Temper Tantrums

Oliver was normally a calm 14-month-old, but when I went to pick him up from the play area at a local bookstore before he thought he was ready to leave, he transformed into a howling, thrashing stranger in a matter of seconds. He sobbed, shrieked, and even hurled a toy at a kind (but foolhardy) customer who tried to distract him.

I'd love to report that I ended this tantrum quickly, earning me wild applause from the gathered crowd. Instead, it caught me completely off guard. Red-faced and humiliated by my uncontrollable offspring, I stumbled through every calming trick I could think to try. (What actually worked in the end: a hasty retreat, then a long afternoon nap -- for both of us.)

Tantrums erupt as your child starts to develop his own (strong) will and his impulse control lags far behind. It's just too bad you can't say to the Mommy Police (glaring at you in the grocery store like you're a terrible mother) that "Jimmy's still learning to express himself."

But I've discovered that you can brace yourself and get through it. Try to think of tantrums as beasts you can understand -- and master.

The Shopping-Center Showdown

Habitats: Malls, toy stores, supermarkets, and dollar stores

Triggers: Boredom, confinement, a desire for material gain

Age range: 18 months to 6 years; peak season occurs between ages 2 and 3, when attention spans run short

Look for: Squirming and fussing when secured in shopping carts and strollers; demands for toys and sweets

Field report: Meredith Roth of Atlanta knows the pressure of a public tantrum. Recently, a shopper at a department store accosted her after Julia, 2, burst into angry tears when Roth wouldn't let her climb out of the shopping cart. "This woman came up to me and said very loudly, 'Aren't you going to pick her up? This is the cruelest thing I've ever seen.'" Roth tried to tell the stranger that she was handling the tantrum, but the woman kept on criticizing -- as she followed Roth around the store.

"I wanted to go to my car and cry," says Roth. "I felt like a failure, a public embarrassment."


Prevention and handling:

* Distract! Young toddlers respond well to silly faces and nursery rhymes; ask older toddlers to, say, identify and choose items like bananas and apples.

* Escape the "public-razzi." Leave your cart at a courtesy desk (look for one before a tantrum erupts, even if you think everything's going fine) while you deal with your child in your car or outside the store.

* Ignore your audience. Focus on your child instead. What he remembers is a lot more important than what strangers say, says Stacy DeBroff, a mom of two and author of The Mom Book: 4,278 of Mom Central's Tips for Moms From Moms.

* Check your temper. If you're snarling and cursing at traffic on the way to buy groceries, guess who's getting a lesson in emotional mastery in the backseat?

* Keep up with your changing child. Your 3-year-old might have been happy to sit in a shopping cart last month, but now he may long for a little more independence. Nip a tantrum in the bud by allowing him to walk -- but only if he agrees to hold your hand or the side of the cart.

Diana Burrell is a coauthor of The Renegade Writer.