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Toddler Tantrum Advice and Tricks

Alli Arnold

You know those moms you see at the mall with the über-obedient, halo-wearing, indoor-voice-using  kids? You look away from your less-than-angelic tot and wonder, How does she do it? What does she know that I don t? Lucky b****! I always assumed I would be one of those women. Then I had a rambunctious, loud-talking, nonstop-testing toddler named Alex. We have our Hallmark moments, but we also have our meltdowns and our tantrums  and the constant negotiating. Now I live in fear of being the other mom:

You  know, the one with the sweat on her brow and the screaming kid  squirming to get out of her arms or the stroller. The mom I used to look  at and think, OMG, control your kid, woman! How hard can it be? Turns out, very.

Since  keeping your child under house arrest is not always an option,  especially during the holidays, we asked real moms--the ones who get the  approving looks, not the eye rolls--to share their in-the-trenches tricks  that make those public outings less painful. So go ahead and pack that  diaper bag--we've got your back.

At the Grocery Store
Because  we all know kid behavior can go from good to god-awful in the time it takes to read the ingredients list on the bread, the key here is to get in and get out. I always make a list ahead of time and plot my course  meticulously so that there's no hovering--or backtracking. As long as  we're moving, we're good.

For Christi Wampler, a mother in  Knoxville, TN, the trick is strawberry milk, something her son only gets  at Kroger. "I purposely don't keep it at home so that it feels like a  special treat," she says. They also discuss ahead of time that getting  out of the cart is not an option (the carlike carts most stores have now  make this more doable). If her son pitches a fit, she doesn't budge, no  matter how mortified she is. "I figure the grocery store is the one  place most people have seen a toddler have a 'moment,'" says Wampler. "I  don't give in. I'll either ignore him or distract him."

For distraction, "Mama's Boy" blogger Christine Coppa plays I Spy--the celeb version. "I  give Jack a tabloid and tell him to look for red shoes, a car, a blue  jacket," the Riverdale, NJ, mom says. "Later, I get to catch up on what  Lady Gaga's been up to, so it's a win-win." As your kids get a little  older, you can have them help--crossing things off the list or picking  out stuff for their lunch.

At the Toy Store
Can you  give a kid a time-out in Toys "R" Us? The answer is no. I actually  tried when what began as an innocent trip to get a special toy for  learning to pee on the potty ended with Alex throwing Percy at my head  after I made him get off the giant Barbie Jeep he really wanted. D'oh!  Clearly, I had a thing or two to learn. Amanda Cullinan, a Marshfield,  MA, mom of three children under 5, says it's all about the three p's:  practice, preparation, and patience. She practices a "seeing toys  doesn't mean you touch them" routine by going down the toy aisle at the  grocery store every time she's there. "I teach them that even though  they're surrounded by toys, they're not always going to get one," she  says. "That way, when they are in a toy store, they don't go into  shock."

Because the toy store is unique in its allure, it's not  the best place to do a spur-of-the-moment stop-in. Cullinan likes to  prepare her kids for a trip by talking about it and figuring out what  they're going to buy--sometimes they look at pictures online. "I drill it  into my kids' heads until they repeat it back to me that they're not  getting anything--or we're just getting one thing, if that's the case,"  she says. Then she keeps it as quick as possible. "I ask an employee to  tell me exactly where to go for the item I need," she says.  Occasionally, she even calls ahead and asks them to hold her purchase up  front.

Got time to spare? Wampler likes to let her son explore  and play with some of the toys, which many stores have set up for this  purpose. "It's an activity for him," she notes. And if you run into  trouble, adds Cullinan, tell them the toy-store police are going to  come!


At the Photographer
The  secret to pulling off that moment on Santa's lap or the family  greeting-card shot? Smarties candy, says Kim Cousins, a Huntington, NY,  portrait photographer and mother of two. Smarties are perfect because  they don't stain lips or tongues, can be given one at a time (one per  shot, if need be), are quick to eat, and make no mess, she explains.  (Promising ice cream afterward is another good carrot to dangle!)

Then  go with the flow and take direction from the photographer. "Parents  often tell us the exact pose they want, but kids don't always  cooperate," says Cousins. Sometimes you have to bag the picture you have  in your head. If there are adults in the photo, too, for instance,  sitting and holding your kids in your laps gives you more control, she  explains. You can wrap your arms around them and hold their hands so  they don't go up their noses!

If the picture is only of the kids,  act like a goof. Cousins's husband stands behind her and makes a fool of  himself as she shoots. You may be embarrassed then, she says, but when  you have the perfect holiday card, you'll get over it.

Oh, and a  good tip for getting onto Santa's lap without tears: Make a few practice  trips to the "North Pole" whenever you're at the mall so your  scaredy-pants can see all the other kids having fun. When it's her turn,  she'll know what to expect--and be super excited.

In a Restaurant
This  one is all about location, location, location. "The bigger and louder  the restaurant, the better you will blend," says Jenny Rosenstrach,  coauthor of Time for Dinner. And go early: Pick the 5:30 p.m.  reservation, says Rosenstrach, who has two young daughters. "It's always  available, the restaurant will be empty, and the staff will be nicer."  Then put in your kids' orders as soon as you sit down; when the adult  food comes, they can have dessert. This move should buy you at least a  few uninterrupted mouthfuls. But you've got to make peace with the fact  that it may not be a stellar nutrition moment. "If the bread basket  becomes dinner, you have to be okay with that," says Rosenstrach. "Leave  the scorecard at home and give yourself the night off, too."

Got a  kid who just loves to bang the utensils and throw the sugar packets?  Ask the hostess to clear the table before you sit down. "If my kids see  the spoons and I have to take them away, it becomes a fight, but if they  never see them, we're fine," says Katie Byrnes, a mother of two in  Northport, NY. Another option: Bring your own! My friend Jill's daughter  loved playing with the sugar caddy so much that Jill actually bought  her one of her own (99 cents at And the only time she's allowed to play with it is when they go out to eat!

Another  genius way to kill time: Come up with a "restaurant game."  Rosenstrach's youngest daughter invented "Raise your hand if?" (you see  the color green, you went to preschool today, etc.). "The idea is not to  let them stop to think about misbehaving," she says. And if it gets  stressful, just order a glass of wine and remind yourself that you don't  have to cook. Or clean up.

On an Airplane
Sarah Geiger, a mother of two toddlers in Brooklyn, says it's all about  getting the energy out in the airport. "My kids can run, climb, and  explore the wide hallways, moving walkways, golf carts, and zillion  chairs all they want," she says. "We become those parents with wild  animals in the airport--it's better those moments are on land!" Once they  board, though, they stay in their seats. "If they have a chance to walk  once on the plane, they will spend the entire flight trying to do just  that, so I never put it on the table," Geiger says.

JoAnn Kuzma Deveny, a veteran flight attendant and author of 99 Ways to Make a Flight Attendant Fly--Off the Handle! agrees. "Children are more apt to stay seated if the parent simulates a  car trip," she says. To that end (and for safety's sake), bring your  child's car seat onto the plane (make sure it's approved for air travel)  and strap her into it. Then it's all about keeping her entertained.  Books, coloring pads, toys, and a portable DVD player with headphones  (God's gift to flying mothers) all do the trick. So does food. Just make  sure you have enough for an entire day of eating (because there will be a delay). Fill up the sippy cups ahead of time (they can be brought  through security now) and get ready to be at your child's beck and call.  Deveny's number one piece of advice: "Check your own bag, and only  carry on what you need for your child." Even though baggage claim will  add time, it's worth it to have your hands free. Maybe your kid will  fall asleep and you can order a Bloody Mary and finally finish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But probably not.

Other great tips from Deveny:  Schedule your flights during naptime or even bedtime; do diaper changing  or potty visits right before boarding; always have something for your  kids to suck or chew on--a pacifier, a lollipop, some crackers--during  takeoff and landing, when air pressurization can cause painfully plugged  ears. And if you've got a seat kicker (I do), here's my secret: When  the flight attendant comes by to make sure seat belts are secure, just  ask her to explain quickly to your child why we must stay strapped/not  kick/use our indoor voice. I am not at all ashamed that my kid will  listen to strangers on this stuff but not me.


At the Mall
Every  year I say I'm going to do all my holiday shopping online, and every  December I find myself trekking to the mall. Judging by the little kids  racing through the racks, I know I'm not alone.  Nedra Abruzzese-Werling, an Albany, NY, mom of a 3-year-old boy and a  2-year-old girl, has a new trick: her Radio Flyer two-seater plastic  wagon. "I get a lot of looks, but the kids have more fun in there than  in the stroller--and they get to see all around rather than just facing  forward, which makes them more apt to stay put." She admits it's a  little tough to maneuver in and out of dressing rooms, but says it's "so  much better than screaming their names as they run in opposite  directions."

A friend of mine who loves shopping more than she  loathes misbehaving kids leaves her house just as her son is getting  tired so he'll nod off in the car, and then she moves him to his  reclined stroller when they arrive (this obviously works only with a  deep sleeper). The buzz of shoppers and Muzak creates white noise, and  she's good to go.

Another idea from Wampler: Go to the play area  first. "I let my two-year-old run around for a bit so he associates a  trip to the mall with fun for him, as well," she says. Once he's burned  some energy, he'll hop in the stroller with a snack and Wampler can do  her thing.


At a Sibling's Game
The first time a  giggling toddler runs onto the basketball court, it's cute and everyone  laughs. After that, it gets annoying. And dangerous. "The key is to give  them an active role," says Brooke de Lench, founder of,  a clearinghouse for youth sports parents. When her triplets were  toddlers, she always dressed them in little team jerseys and had them  create a cheering section. "The older kids thought it was so cool  because they had mini-mascots," she says. De Lench also recommends  bringing a spiral notebook and turning it into a playbook of sorts:  Sketch out stick-figure players with big circles on their chests and  have your little ones color them in and tell you what number to fill in  for each team member.

Of course, you're not going to be able to  hold their attention the entire game, so take them for walks, let them  go to the playground if there is one (see if you can tag-team with  another parent on the sidelines), or give them a job. Katie Byrnes  always has her daughter, Grace, help hand out the snack or wave the flag  at halftime when they're at her big brother's soccer games. Her latest  gig: photographer. "I gave her a disposable camera and had her take  pictures of the game," says Byrnes. "I haven't developed them yet, but  they're all probably of her feet anyway."