Tantrums: Two tales and a little advice to onlookers

“It’s hard having tantrums” a wise two year old consoled my three year old lately, when he was mid tantrum. “Yeah” he sobbed and nodded in agreement, tears rolling down his cheeks.  And I realised that she was speaking more sense than most adults when confronted with a tantrumming child.

Tantrums are hard.

They’re hard on the child, on the parents, on the other siblings.

It’s even harder when it’s in public. And everyone is watching. And some are judging. And then others decide to intervene.

I’ve heard a soundbite of coverage on the Liveline programme on RTE in the past few weeks, of a well spoken lady complaining about seeing a child tantrumming and saying that she just had to intervene. She didn’t, trust me on this one.

A few weeks ago my emotional three year old had a massive tantrum in a local supermarket. He wanted me to buy him a specific pair of trousers that were three sizes too small. I quite reasonably refused, he stamped and screamed. I bent down to talk to him at eye level. I asked what I could do to help. I explained why he couldn’t have them.  I used my calm voice. I offered a hug, or to carry him. Nothing would please him.

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So I kept going to the Customer Service desk to go about my business and he followed me whinging and moaning. He needed to get the upset out of his system. We both knew this. Something would eventually distract him and we could all move on. Until then he would whinge.

He has big brown eyes, they’re his trademark, conveying his every emotion, giving away his torment. Other shoppers looked sympathetically at him, and then at me, pushing a buggy with a small baby, and trying to get a five year old and sobbing three year old to follow me. Some looked disapprovingly, others, with their own small children in tow gave me supportive, sympathetic glances. I trudged on.

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Check out those eyes

Because I know my child. I know that this will pass. It upsets me to see him this way but I know how stubborn he is, how neither scolding nor hugs will fix this, how changing the subject won’t work. We will wait it out, wail it out and he will be fine. Noisy, but fine. In the meantime, I’ll try not to get stressed by the scene we are inevitably causing.

I reached my destination with my troupe. The lady on the customer service desk took one look at the sad boy and held out a sweet, asking in front of him, while waving the shiny colourful wrapper if he could have it. If I’d said no the tantrum would have reached a new level. I felt my parenting tested to the max, so I let him have the stupid sweet. He continued to sob and whine, as I knew he would. The tantrum needed to run its course. The interference had possibly only served to prolong it and to make him sticky. I was annoyed, I felt judged, but I let it slide. I wished that I hadn’t.

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Fast forward to a few weeks later and I was in the same store, with the same child tantrumming. I needed to keep him close so I sat him on the counter as I paid. He whinged. As I paid the checkout lady tutted, looked at the very sad boy and said “OH FOR GOODNESS SAKE” crossly. He looked at her, looked at me and increased his volume. This one I couldn’t let lie. I looked her straight in the eye and said calmly “that was most unhelpful”. She seemed startled and apologised immediately. She knew by my tone and Cathal’s reaction that she had done wrong. He most likely wasn’t the first (nor the fifth) tantrumming child that she had met that day, her patience may have been tested too, but she had interfered.

I probably should stop shopping in that store, as it clearly brings out the worst in my child, and possibly in me.

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Let me give some unsolicited advice to onlookers-  how to act when you see a parent struggling with their tantrumming child. It’s pretty simple really.

If you see a tantrumming child please don’t scold the child.

Please don’t scold the parent or give disapproving looks.

Please don’t offer the child bribes or treats.

It would be nice if you’d consult with the parents before making any offers/bribes/treats.

Perhaps offer to carry their shopping or to watch another child while they deal with/wrestle with the upset child.

But most of all: Put yourself in their shoes, in my shoes, and leave them alone, they’ll work it out. They know their child. If they need your help they’ll ask.

35 Comments

  1. Oh yes, so much yes. And it really bugs me when people offer sweets to my children without quietly checking with me first. Because all they’ll do is fight about them and demand them next time. It doesn’t help me in any way at all.

  2. I can so relate….really hope anyone who reads this will take on board your advise.

  3. Good one. I heard that lady on the joe Duffy show. She made my blood boil. Have not heard someone that sanctimonious in a while…..

  4. Some sage advice! What is it about supermarkets that seems to bring out the worst in people wanting to offer criticism or advice on your parenting skills? I once had a woman berate me because I had my two children sitting in the trolley… not only did she make a big drama to me but she wanted the whole shop to observe my terrible parenting decision!!! Pity I didn’t look her in the eyes and tell her how “unhelpful” she was!

  5. Grrr. I feel your pain. My four year old was cross in a clothes shop recently (because she wanted a dress but I needed to buy her a jacket). She sat on the floor (quietly) looking cross. I knew I could talk her around. But the shop assistant came over and said “Oh, are you sulking? Come on now, no sulking, come and look at the jackets” I know my four year old better than anyone else in the world does, and I know she doesn’t react well to strangers talking to her, so someone telling her not to sulk was never going to end well. I ended up having to manage the woman, trying to distract her away from my daughter to avoid making it worse. So yes, I feel your pain!

  6. Well done Sinéad ! I have had many many of those ‘helpful’ comments my favourite is ‘they are probably hungry”. I always want to reply ”oh , are you meant to feed children?’ Fair play to you, my comebacks are always composed in the car after the fact.

    • Oh that drives me mad Grainne. Also when they start talking to the upset child “did Mammy not feed you yet?” . Arrggghhhhh. Sometimes saying the thing really feels empowering, but lots of people do mean well I think. They just think that we mothers are completely incompetent!

  7. Completely agree about the intervention, always inappropriate. However, I think removing the tantrumming child from the scene has a number of benefits that outweigh the stress of leaving purchases etc. 1) change of scene often helps the child 2) fresh air often helps everyone 3) the fewer people you are around, the less chance of interference. It can stretch a bad journey out alright but worth it in the end

    • If leaving is possible then I will Sarah, but it’s difficult to get another opportunity to get out with two other kids with me too. If my husband is with me we’d always follow that approach and one of us would remove the upset child while the other carried on about our business.

  8. Great post, Sinead. It happened to me, only once, which was lucky, to say the least with our girl! An elderly lady was about to “offer comment”, and I looked at her and said “don’t even go there”. I was stared at, and possibly judged too. We know our own children, and deal with them as best we can. Our “baby” is 21 this year…. but your post reminded me of that day.

  9. Had a similar incident with our 3yr old. She wanted sweets in the supermarket, but since lunch was due as soon as we got home, I said not now. Well tears, tantrums followed!! Patiently I explained the situation yet again, adding that if she will not stop we will go straight home. At the time I was doing our MONTHLY shop (lived in SA at the time & that’s what one did). She did not! So I have picked her out of the trolley, apologised to the staff for an almost full unpaid for trolley and drove home.
    I have never had a problem again. It was 30 yrs ago! Mind you she did try it 3yrs later when her brother was born, but once reminded of the previous incident she stopped. I had to drive the following day to do the shopping again. Yes we do know our children, sometime inconvenience to us, makes life easier later.

  10. Wonderful advice as usual. This really hits home. We’ve all been there. I think I’ve actually been in same supermarket, I think I know which one you’re on about. The incident when I was told my refluxy baby was crying because his sock had fallen off and he was obviously cold, happened in same supermarket. My 2 yo is just starting his tantruming days, I’d love to say the 5 year old is finished, any day now! Will keep this post in mind, and I think I might be brave enough to speak up too when people interfere.

  11. What wonderful advice! We, for some reason, out of 4 boys, had one who was gifted in this department. In fairness to him though, he only ever had maybe half a dozen epic performances his entire life but they were worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. They would last for maybe two hours and then he would sleep – exhausted. They were upsetting for all involved. During the midst of one outside our lovely newsagents, the owner actually came out of the shop with a lollipop for him. He was having none of it. She was lovely though, it was done out of sympathy. But I’m still not sure if that sympathy was directed at us or our child!

  12. Brilliant post. Who hasn’t been there, but some parents seem to have forgotten.

  13. So good to read. Of course everyone with toddlers have these public tantrum moments, but I love to read of other people’s experiences as it just reinforces the fact that, I am not alone!
    As for interference, there is nothing worse then a complete stranger telling off your child, and making it ten time worse! And the sweets………..G was once given a sweet in a shop, while Shane was in the car with R, and of course I then had to ask for one for his little sister too like a desperate mother, because I knew the chaos in the car if G got in with a sweet and if I had none for R! Neither of them needed a sweet!! Grrr

  14. I’ve been in this situation a few times! But I didn’t always know what would work, definitely not sweets though. And personally I wouldn’t ask for help, but sometimes it would’ve been nice if I’d been asked x

  15. This post resonates so much on the unsolicited sweets side. Our local butcher has a jar of sweets for kids and when I went in when my daughter was a year, she got offered a lolly for being “a good girl”. We haven’t been able to go there with her again since because she knows there are sweets, she’ll be offered, and when I refuse, she throws a huge tantrum that people then throw daggers at me for. sigh.

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