It was a professional milestone: Greenfield’s Marianne Bullock, who worked for women’s advocacy group Moms Rising, had scored a coveted meeting with then-Senator Scott Brown to discuss paid sick leave policy in Massachusetts. To illustrate the point, she brought her toddler daughter — and she was joined by a handful of other mothers with young children to deliver stories of job loss.
Suddenly, a nose-twirling aroma filled the room.
“I kept thinking, ‘That smell has to be another kid in this meeting,’” Bullock recalls.
But, no, it was her child, who had wedged herself behind a large fake tree in the senator’s office and gone to the bathroom. She then refused to dislodge herself from the greenery, throwing a tantrum instead. The gathering ended on an unceremonious note.
“Honestly, I was half-mortified and half-relieved that there was something forcing the meeting to end. I laughed and cried before I started the two-hour ride home,” Bullock says.
We’ve all been there: Me, you, Bullock, and even Kate Middleton, whose ordinarily dapper son Prince Louis was pretty much all set with the Queen’s Jubilee last weekend and proceeded to grab his mother, make faces, thumb his nose, and shriek during the much-photographed event. Every parent on earth was collectively mortified on Middleton’s behalf. For once, the royal family was incredibly relatable — in fact, it was probably a p.r. move that no publicist could’ve orchestrated.
That said, when you’re the one whose child turns beet red in the middle of Market Basket because they’re out of Frosted Flakes, well, it’s a different story. How to cope? Do you yell? Rationalize in a sing-song voice? Duck behind a fake tree yourself? I spoke to two experts, Boston Children’s Hospital attending psychologist Erica Lee and Lesley University education department chair Lisa Fiore, for advice.
First, recognize that tantrums are a normal stage of psychosocial development and do not indicate that your child is a small monster.
“A 4-year-old is really trying to be independent and to show: ‘I can do this.’ And so, when they’re constantly being told, ‘No, you have to redirect your impulse or your instinct and do this other thing,’ then they can feel guilty,” says Fiore. This leads to psychologically rational, albeit embarrassing, outbursts.
In fairness, though, children are also clever little sneaks. They pick their moments.
“It’s not malicious, but kids sense when they have the maximum opportunity to get what they want. We’re reward-driven. Kids recognize parents have less ability to tolerate their reaction when we’re in public,” Lee says, meaning we’re more likely to give in to make the situation please just go away.
Lee points out that kids also have trouble regulating emotions when they’re tired, hungry, or bored. (Sounds kind of like adults.) Meanwhile, parents can have a tough time setting boundaries because it inevitably results in a struggle, and who wants that?
“Setting a limit with their child leads to distress: whining, complaining, starting to cry,” Lee says.
“But kids appreciate boundaries,” says Fiore.
As such, Lee recommends laying ground rules before a potentially tantrum-riddled event. In a calm moment, when you know your child is in a listening mood, set the scene. Explain what the child can expect (a loud birthday party, a nice restaurant, an audience with the queen) and make rules. She suggests offering three rules maximum and asking them to repeat each one back, such as keeping hands to oneself or speaking in an indoor voice.
“Then, if families are OK with this, offer some kind of small reward, some kind of incentive for good behavior,” Lee says.
Next, talk consequences: “Say, ‘If you’re having a hard time keeping your hands to yourself or managing the tone of your voice, I may need to take you out of the room. But I have confidence that you can do it,’” she advises.
If things go awry anyway? Take your ego out of the equation. Your child’s temper tantrum doesn’t reflect poorly on your worth as a parent.
“Every time we get worried as parents about what’s not going right, just take a minute to breathe and ask: Do we really care?” Fiore says.
Fiore says that some parents are so worried about a potential tantrum and how it might look that they preemptively pull out things like iPads at restaurants before even giving their child a chance to behave.
“It just becomes a routine: ‘Oh, we’re going out to a restaurant; we’re going to put the iPad on so you can be distracted. What about first trying to have a human interaction?” she says.
If things do turn sour, stay calm — even if you need to leave the room for a minute so you don’t explode. (Royal protocol probably prohibited Middleton from trying this, but we commoners can.)
“Children, especially at the younger ages, when they feel out of control, are looking to us to ensure there is a controller to put the edges around a situation that might feel big or scary or uncertain. They’re looking to us and how we react to gauge their own reaction,” Fiore says. “This is Teacher Training 101: Once they get you, you’ve lost your control. You’ve lost all of your footing.”
Once you return, calmly validate their sadness — “That was a long party! That was a long jubilee!” — and praise the positives.
“If children are able to self-regulate most of the time, and then they lose their power some of the time, that’s expected. Later, when heads are cooler, say, ‘If this happens again, we’re going to have to set a consequence, and then be willing to follow through with that consequence,” Fiore offers.
Following through is hard — it’s way easier to just pretend the whole ugly scene never happened — but it’s important.
“I’ve said it to parents before: It’s OK to say no. You’re still the one in charge. The first time your child says, ‘I hate you! You’re the worst!’ it feels like a dagger. After a while, it’s, ‘OK. You said that yesterday,’” Fiore says.