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Taming a Public Temper Tantrum

William Sears, M.D., coauthor of The Discipline Book, explains what to do when your child throws a fit in a public place:

Q. What motivates a toddler to have a tantrum in public?

Many locations, such as stores, are overwhelming for children because they harbor so many temptations. For example, let's say you take your child to the supermarket and he decides he wants some cookies. When you say no, the clash of wills can result in a tantrum for the whole store to see.

Q. How should parents handle it?

A. In private, sometimes it's best to ignore a tantrum. But you can't walk away from a squalling child in a store or park -- and, of course, his behavior is disturbing other people. Tell him, "I know you're upset, but it's time to calm down." It can help to give him something else to think about -- try saying something like "Let's finish shopping by picking out bananas together." When little hands are busy, little minds are less upset.

Q. And if that doesn't work?

Take him out of the store. If he won't walk, carry him -- I've done that myself. Hold him so that you're face to face and say, "You're out of control. I'm in control, and I'm here to help you. I understand you're upset because you want that toy, but here are the reasons you can't have it. Until you calm down, you're going to sit here." Continue to offer him your ear and understanding. Eventually he'll get bored and settle down. In the meantime, though, it's okay to call it quits and go home, as long as he's the one being penalized, not you.

Q. How do you handle other people's reactions?

It's easy to feel as if you or your child is being judged. It's definitely uncomfortable when everyone's looking at you and you're wondering, What am I doing wrong here? My child is the only one who's out of control. In fact, it may seem easier just to buy the kid whatever it is he's screaming about and hightail it out of the store.

Instead, try to block out everyone else and focus on your child. If you take a calm, firm stand with him, I think people appreciate it. One time, when our daughter Lauren was 5, she launched into hysterics because I refused to buy her a candy bar at the checkout counter. The clerk said to me, "I wish more parents would say no to their children."

Q. Is there any way to avoid a public tantrum in the first place?

Hunger and fatigue can make a child more tantrum-prone, so your toddler should be fed and rested before you go out.

It's also a good idea to explain the rules before you leave the house. You can say, "I expect you to stay close to the grocery cart and help me. And I'm not going to buy you candy or another treat." Children are more likely to behave when they know ahead of time what they can and cannot do.