MommyCon :: Tips From A Behavior Specialist: How to Handle Public Tantrums

Tips From A Behavior Specialist: How to Handle Public Tantrums

It’s happened to many of us. You’re walking along aisle 4 in the grocery store and your kiddo spots a sugary treat that is nowhere on your shopping list. You utter one of the most aversive phrases in the history of toddler vocabulary words, “no” or some other variation. Now your sweet little darling is sprawled out on the floor screaming. You feel the eyes of a million judges on your back so you toss the treat into the shopping cart so that you can finish your shopping trip.

Maybe your little one would rather be at home watching cartoons on a Saturday, but your favorite store is having a buy 1 get 30 free sale. You’re halfway through your shopping trip and your sweet child turns into the tantrum monster. A stranger offers a suggestion of how to handle the situation and your brain translates whatever this stranger says into “You can’t control your child.” You grab your kiddo in one swoop; abandon your shopping cart (or buggy if you’re in a southern state) and high tail it out to the parking lot.

Sounds familiar? It does for me because I’ve done these exact things, but neither of my responses stopped the next tantrum from occurring. What I actually did was increase the likelihood of my child having a tantrum when similar situations occurred because I was embarrassed and concerned with how my child’s behavior reflected my parenting.

Here’s What to Do

When you’re out in public and your child has a tantrum don’t worry about what others may be thinking of you or your child. Take a deep breath and think E.A.T.S., Escape, Attention, Tangible and Sensory. These are the four functions of behavior. That’s right, every behavior your child (and everyone else) engages in has a purpose.

When in public, tantrums that are maintained by escape and access to tangibles are the easiest to handle because all you have to do is keep shopping or not allow the child access to the tangible. A tantrum that’s maintained by sensory isn’t something I’ve experienced, but I’m not going to say that it can’t ever happen. A behavior maintain by sensory would be a behavior that your child would do if he was alone in a room with all of his or her favorite things.

Attention is the hardest to handle because of the potential audience and well-meaning shoppers wanting to help by reasoning with your child. Also, you don’t want to reinforce tantrum maintained by other functions of behavior with attention (attention does not have to be positive to reinforce attention maintained behaviors).

Once I let onlookers know that I can handle the situation I bring out my secret weapon, PLANNED IGNORING. I ignore the tantrum behavior but not my child. I may or may not have pushed a screaming 3 year old who’d been told that she could not get a particular toy around in a shopping cart with a big smile on my face, talking to her as I shop as I normally would. She and the rest of the shoppers probably thought that I was crazy, but my daughter didn’t have another tantrum over me not buying something she wanted.


*If you’re no longer reinforcing tantrum behavior just be mindful of extinction bursts. That’s when your little one may push you to your limit by amping up the ante. There is a reason that sometimes behaviors get worse before they get better.

Preventing Tantrums

Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Replacement behaviors are awesome and any good behavior intervention should have one. A replacement behavior should serve the same function as the tantrum.
  2. Teach and reinforce functional communication. I’ve heard many a parent tell a kid to “use their words” and I wonder if the kid knows exactly what words to use.
  3. Teach your child coping skills. We all have emotions, but it’s how we cope with those emotions that makes the biggest difference.
  4. Offer choices of available options when what your child wants is not an option.
  5. Tell your child the behaviors you want to see when you’re out and about (make no mention of the behaviors you don’t want to see).
  6. Create contingencies of good behavior. It’s not a bribe if it comes after the desired behavior. It’s a REINFORCER!!!


About the author: Stacie is a military spouse, mom and behavior analyst and shares her journey as a military spouse and autism mom on her blog MilSpouse in the House.