How to Effectively Handle Tantrums

How to Effectively Handle Tantrums in a Public Arena

We are in the middle of the store, my child screaming, kicking, and throwing items out of the cart. I’m trying to be reasonable, with a voice full of impatience. People walk by, giving us as much room as possible; others take a step toward us, then turn around and go the other way. This is one of those moments I know will happen, but still dread- the public tantrum.  

Before stepping on the field, there is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. I have been witness to both.

Tantrum: Happens when a child is trying to get something they want or need. Example- not getting candy when at the grocery store.

Meltdown: Happens when there is too much sensory input to process. A tantrum can lead to a meltdown. Example-going to an amusement park, with all new colors, sights, smells, and people.  

Knowing the difference allowed me to discern how to approach my child and how to handle the situation. When I should discipline and when to concede. Don’t be blindsided, when the tantrum comes. It’s Go Time!!     

2 Timothy 1:7

Let’s huddle up; before we head to the store, party, or event with our child we need a…


The Game Plan

Plan Ahead: Before rushing out the door, stop and think. Have a good idea how long it takes to get where you are going, leave with enough time to get there, have enough time to get everything done and be aware of potential obstacles that might occur. Proverbs 21:5    

Avoid Certain Situations: For each parent and child, the situation is different. It isn’t wise to go grocery shopping with a hungry or tired child. If you go, you may end up buying them candy, or toys. If you say no you might start a tantrum because “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” A child has little patience for the word ‘no’ when they are irritable. At our house, we never go out after 3 pm; for some reason, our kids get into more trouble during this time.  

Engage Them: Be prepared, have games, toys, books, something for them to keep occupied. Boredom leads to tantrums. Our kids each have a backpack that they fill up with toys and books. They bring the backpack with them, in the car, at the restaurant, etc. Even if you don’t bring something with you, there are lots game ideas. Here are some from Totally Kids Time. We often play #9, Disappearing Objects, while waiting.

Set Expectations: Before arriving let your child know what to expect. Do this before leaving the house or during the car ride. If you are going to a store, let them know if they will be getting anything. You can also give them a choice, between two snacks or different toys. Be cautious, buying your child something every time creates an expectation. Set all ground rules ahead of time and soon your child will know what to expect.


The Playbook

Once you arrive, with an established game plan the chances are less that a tantrum will occur. Though, a great game plan is not infallible; sometimes the child audibles. A tantrum still happens. Let’s be honest, there are those instances where we forget to let our child know the game plan. For those times here are a few offensive plays

Ignore: If it is a tantrum and not a meltdown ignoring their behavior may work. Once they calm down, you can talk with them. It has never worked for us, so I cannot speak to its effectiveness.

Engage: Find ways to include them. Our grocery store now has children sized shopping carts. My kids love finding items, putting them in and pushing the cart around the store. If that is not an option, make shopping a fun experience and play some games. While shopping, have them look for the cheaper item. Look for a certain color or find the item that is on sale. Consider making a shopping list just for the kids, include words or pictures.


Re-Direct: If it is too late to engage, then try to focus their attention on something different. We use this all the time. Tell them you have a special job and have them go get an item. Get them involved in a game. Try not to use extra incentives. This could cause problems; especially if you said they were not getting anything.

Defensive plays:

Be Calm: It is hard to do, when your child is in all-out tantrum mode, but getting upset will not help. Speak as calm as possible. Encourage them to use their words or sign language. When speaking, be empathetic, let them know you understand they are frustrated or mad. Then ask them to explain why. Follow James 1:19.    


Hug: Sometimes a good hug is all a child needs to feel understood. For certain children, this helps and if the tantrum becomes a meltdown, this could be a lifesaver.

Leave: Exit the store or event, go to a bathroom and wait till they have calmed, then return.


Run out the Clock

Don’t Give In: Yes, the tantrum will stop if you give your child what they ask; however, you are setting a precedent that is hard to stop. The tantrum will also stop once they realize they won’t get what they want by acting out.  

Praise Reward the positive behavior with verbal accolades. Don’t dwell on any negative, but learn how you can better prepare for the next time. 1 Thessalonians 5;11   


Unlike sports, the public tantrum has no winners or losers. Everyone wins or everyone loses. Just keep your head in the game and you will do fine.

Do you have any tips to help diffuse a public tantrum?

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John is a husband, father and teacher. His passion is to help fathers raise their children by sharing his own experiences while following a biblical worldview. Master Lego builder and tea party host. The greatest, most rewarding role a man can have is that of a father.

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One thought on “How to Effectively Handle Tantrums in a Public Arena

  1. I like your distinction between a tantrum and a meltdown, and I love this reminder “Unlike sports, the public tantrum has no winners or losers. Everyone wins or everyone loses. Just keep your head in the game and you will do fine.”

    My tips for a public tantrum are to look at you or your partner and see if there is something that is not being expressed by the parent. I find that one child is mostly connected to expressing the unexpressed feelings of one parent, and the other child mainly expresses thoughts of the other parent. Take a moment to listen to what the child is complaining about and how that may relate to something you are not expressing. If you are not with the parent connected to the child, try to calling the parent and asking them to express herself. I write about this extensively in Understanding Your Child as a Spiritual Gift,

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