My two children are good, sweet-natured, kind little boys. Mostly. Every now and again they appear to momentarily channel some sort of demonic force from Dante’s seventh circle of hell, usually in public and usually when I am on my own with them.
Our eldest, Harry, is four. He never really went through the terrible twos, so we smugly thought we were doing A-game parenting. Sadly, we were apparently just lucky, because now we are seeing some very challenging moments. Combined with two-year-old Olly’s drive for independence, we are really being kept on our toes.
Take last week. I took the boys into the town centre to go to the bank and Harry had an out-of-the-blue Total Epic Tantrum. One moment it was all blue skies and calm waters, the next he was lying on the floor of the shopping centre thrashing, shouting and going alarmingly rigid whenever I tried to pick him up.
Entertaining The Town Centre
Parents with toddlers in tow smiled sympathetically at me as they passed by, teenagers stared in horrified fascination, a grumpy old woman shook her head and muttered what looked like “disgusting behaviour” (thanks Grumpy Old Woman! Really helped me out there! You definitely didn’t make my horrible situation even more miserable!).
All this attention meant that Olly was a bit alarmed and he refused to let me put him down, so I had to try and deal with the tantrum with one arm and a stern voice.
Distraction failed. A serious, stern voice failed. An attempt to bodily carry the pair of them to the car failed (yes, next time we will be taking the pushchair!). I descended into bribes, which failed. I reasoned. I pleaded. I began to wonder if this was my life now, if I would simply stand there next to screaming children for ever and we would become one of the town landmarks.
After a good 10 minutes of being the public entertainment, I actually just ended up laughing. It was such a ridiculous situation - one child crying if I tried to put him down, one child screaming if I tried to pick him up and no way out that I could see - that I began to giggle at the ridiculousness of it all.
Now, maybe you’re reading this and smugly thinking that your children would never have behaved that way. But can you honestly, honestly tell me that you have always known exactly what to do when your child behaved badly, as they all do from time to time? Do you have no buried memories of the glowers and stares of passers-by, because your children had a tantrum in public? Really? Not one occasion?
Because every parent I have ever asked has a story about public humiliation involving a pre-schooler and an audience. And when you’re on the spot, parenting at the sharp end like that, it can be hard to know what to do, which is why I ended up giggling while old women glared and my pre-schooler yelled.
Whatever Should I Do?
One thing is certain, this must never happen again. So either we never leave the house or I have a plan in place for next time.
I got in touch with child behaviour expert Richard Curtis, aka the Kid Calmer (which makes him sound like the Dog Whisperer, but for toddlers…). Fortunately, he reassured me that every parent goes through public meltdowns. So what was the answer?
“How you respond to your distressed child honestly depends on your child, there are generally four options. You walk away and ignore them (not feeding the tantrum); you distract them; you provide them with what is known as containment to limit the tantrum - you use a soft voice, you pick them up or hug them, you take hold of both of their hands and make eye contact with them; or you go the whole hog and shock your child out of - remember the ad where the mum has the tantrum in the supermarket?”
Katy Hayden is childcare expert at Tinies, a childcare agency. She tells me it’s essential to stay calm and avoid shouting. “Show your child that they are not upsetting you by behaving like this and that you are not going to wilt and jump to their demand just to stop the show. Get down to their level, talk to them calmly ask them to get up off the floor, tell them you can’t understand them whilst they are screaming and if they want you to listen they need to stop,” she recommends.
“Give him three warnings this allows him to try and correct his behaviour himself, by this I mean tell him you want him to stop, you want him to walk with you and as a last warning you ask him again to do this. If he does not, simply pick him up and carry him to a quiet spot away from whatever started the tantrum. Now you simply tell him that his behaviour was not acceptable.”
Although I take issue with Katy’s use of ‘simply pick him up’ (thrashing four-year-olds aren’t that easy to scoop up), the advice makes sense. The bad news is that she says this tantrum phase takes time to pass. The good news is that “the more you stay in control the easier each one will be to manage”. So while I fervently hope we can avoid this ever happening again, at least I have a clearer plan for next time.
When my children are older and more rational, I hope I always remember to smile sympathetically at parents coping with public meltdowns. Those few minutes can seem like hours.
What are your tantrum tips? Have your children ever embarrassed you like this? Have your say by tweeting @YLifestyleUK.