As parents, we've all been there. That moment when things go south and fall apart in the middle of the grocery store. The moment when you look at your child, realize they have reached the point of no return and that there is no other option but to bail on a cart of groceries and football-style carry your screaming child towards the exit.
Tantrums in general are one of the all-time worst parts of parenting. Tantrums in public are pretty much equivalent to getting a root canal and colonoscopy at the same time… without the drugs.
Now we all know about the “correct” ways of setting our kids up for success during public outings. Prepare them, reinforce them, have a plan, speak to them calmly, ya-da, ya-da, ya-da.
But what about when you start to see their warning signs despite doing all those things? Or what about when we just don’t have time to do those things- because you know, this is life and sometimes it gets a little crazy?
One word- DISTRACTION.
Seriously, do not underestimate the power of a good distraction technique. When done at the right time (as in, you aren’t already past the point of no return), distraction can be hugely efficient at… well, distracting.
Here are a few great distraction techniques that may be helpful in steering your child away from tantrum city.
1. We’re going to play a game! Whip out your phone and your grocery list. Tell them you are going to time how long it take to fine each item; the goal to beat your fastest time each new item. Let your child control the stop watch on your phone- who cares if they do it right or not. Keep track of the time and make a big deal, cheering and carrying on when you beat your record time.
2. Hey, guess what I found in my bag! Cate Scolnik, author on A Fine Parent, recommends that parents are prepared for problems by having an emergency stash of stuff, such as food and entertainment. The purpose for this is of course to ensure that being hungry or bored is not adding to an already tantrum-ready scenario… but it’s a huge distraction too. Even a child who isn’t all that hungry is not likely going to pass up a snack if it’s a yummy one. Being in the grocery store, you of course have a wide array of snacks at your hands; although bringing one with you helps ensure that you won't be carted out in cuffs after opening a box of goldfish you've yet to buy (come on, you know we've all done it at some point).
Hit up those dollar bins at Target and keep some fun drawing supplies on hand as well.
3. Sing it out. Imagine this- your child is starting a meltdown… you know all the warning signs and they are all there. In the middle of an epic whine, you suddenly burst into song. Trust me, you kid doesn’t care if your singing is up to par. And while everyone else around you may, if it provides enough of a shock factor to distract your kid and get them to join in song, it will be well worth the stares from onlookers.
4. Make an inanimate object talk. This is super convenient if you happen to have a little one who refuses to leave home without a stuffed friend. But if that’s not the case, then grab anything handy and make it talk. Deep voices, high voices, silly voices… come up with a story line that involves as much running into things or falling off of things as possible. Trust me, kids love this. And they will love it just as much if it’s a ketchup bottle or box of pasta talking, as a stuffed bear.
5. Beat them to the punch. Throw your own temper tantrum. Stomp your feet, crinkle your nose, fake cry and whine. Now I’m not going to lie- this is a risky one. If your child is just a little too far gone when you try this, it could backfire on you and result in a faster track to a meltdown. However, the point is to get your child to laugh… and sometimes, seeing the humor behind Mommy having a meltdown can do the trick.
Is your child one of those who always has a stuffed friend? Back up to the point above and have that plush one throw the fit for you!
6. Hey, can we play Paw Patrol when we get home? Or, whatever your child is really into at that moment… bring up that favorite toy to remind them what is waiting at home… and then make it even more enticing by asking if you can play too. If your child appears to take the bait on this, continue to talk about what they want to play or where they want to play it. “Let’s put your Paw Patrols in your doll house and have them make breakfast for your dolls.”
The Truth is…
The truth is, tantrums can’t always be avoided. There is no magic pill we can give our kids as we head out the door, to ensure that they will not succumb to a noisy fit of upset. As much as we may prepare and continue to work with our children on the skills necessary to have successful trips into the community, the likelihood is good that there will come a time in which a tantrum is inevitably unavoidable.
Remember, tantrums are very much a part of normal child development. And when children are emotionally charged, as in the throes of a full meltdown, they completely lose the ability to think or function normally. We all know that once this point is hit, the likelihood of a recovery that will happen quickly enough for the trip to be any sort of a success is slim to none.
That’s why using distraction at the first warning signs can help avoid the full meltdown. Catch them before the downward spiral and turn their mind to something else. This may mean making a bit of a fool of yourself in front of your fellow shoppers and onlookers; but it can't be any more embarrassing than leaving a cart full of groceries behind as you barrel your way outta Dodge!