How To Deal With A Toddler’s Public Temper Tantrum

Fight the embarrassment — because your kid matters more than the people judging you.

Originally Published: 
A mother with her two kids in a store while one throws a temper tantrum.
Mikael Vaisanen/Getty

Toddler tantrums may make you want to have your own meltdown — especially when they happen in public. But keeping your cool, understanding why children have tantrums, and addressing them appropriately can help quell even the nastiest of public temper tantrums. (To learn Fatherly’s best advice on how to stop temper tantrums, click here.)

First, the understanding bit: It turns out that a tantrum doesn’t just explode in red-faced anger and dwindle (seemingly an infinity later) into gulping sadness. Researchers who recently looked into the anatomy of a tantrum discovered that this conventional understanding is flawed. A tantrum is actually a bit more complex — sadness persists throughout with punctuations of angry behavior.

That anger? Not easy to deal with. The sadness, though, can be tackled with kindness. Which gives you a hint as to what you might want to be doing.

Why Tantrums Happen

Kids throw tantrums for literally any reason under the sun, but there are a couple of things that prime the pump. The biggies? Sudden, unexpected schedule changes, parental stress, and not knowing your expectations for the situation.

Tantrums do not happen because your kid wants to make you feel like an asshole. And they don’t save it up for your next Target trip. At this point, they’re not really sophisticated enough to plan for your humiliation. Plus they have no concept of public versus private. So, you know, chill out.

You’re less likely to have to peel your toddler off the ground if you have a pre-game plan. Before you roll out, consider the following.

  • Make sure they know what’s going down and how long it will take.
  • At the same time, have reasonable expectations. Your kid’s not going to dig three hours at your local home improvement store, no matter how cool it is.
  • Make sure they’ve been fed, aren’t near nap time, and haven’t been dealing with major life changes, which leaves you about a 20-minute window for errands.
  • Give clear expectations about what you want from them. Repeat these like a mantra before you go, as you go, and when you get there.
  • Make sure you bookend the trip with a bit of 1-on-1 time. You don’t have to play a game of Risk. Just roll a ball back and forth for a few minutes.

How to Deal With Tantrums in Public

No matter how you prepare, your kid might just lose it somewhere out there in the big bad world. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It just means your kid is being a kid. So take a breath and act, with these strategies.


This is a pre-meltdown strategy. If you see it coming, use your ultimate dad superpower of distraction and deflection. Ask them to help you by looking for something “important.” Ask an odd question that makes them laugh. Be funny. You know what will derail a tantrum? An awesome fart noise. Or maybe even a real fart and funny face. Sure you might get looks for that one too, but your fellow grocery shoppers can’t have it all.

Don’t Fight It

If the meltdown kicks off, the last thing you want to do is get up in your kid’s grill and try to make them be quiet. In fact, this just might make things worse. Tactics that will ultimately fail you include: public humiliation, threats, punishment, yelling, begging, and crying louder than them.

Attempt Negotiations

Which is to say that you’re not really negotiating. Instead, you’re performing a kind of toddler mind trick. Offer them a couple of limited choices to make them feel like they have a choice at all. That might be going to the car to calm down versus staying in the store to calm down, but either way the end result is that they need to calm down.

Get Away and Get Empathetic

If you’ve quickly run through all of the above, remove your kid from the situation. Get them to a less chaotic place where they can work their crap out. Let your kid know that you understand what it’s like to feel sad and angry about these things, and then let them go through what they need to go through. It’s a process, and it’s natural.

No Craps Given

Now, about that embarrassment. Remember that you are a blip in the lives of everyone around you. It simply does not matter what they think in the grand scheme of things. Also, chances are they aren’t even really paying attention to your personal drama. And if they are giving you side-eye? Well, those are simply bad people, and you can feel sorry for them that they have no compassion in their lives because that’s a sad way to live.

The Five-Pronged Approach to a Toddler’s Public Meltdown

  • Make sure your child is both well-fed and well-rested before running errands.
  • Stay cool when your child has a public tantrum. They’re not breaking down on purpose. Your child has no concept of public versus private nor do they understand humiliation.
  • Go over your schedule with the child before heading out. Giving them a game plan will prepare them for the day.
  • Reward your child with some one-on-one time after each completed task.
  • Don’t combat the tantrum with anger. Instead, deflect with humor, stay empathetic, and negotiate when necessary to downplay the meltdown.

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