Handling Tantrums in Public

Carol Osborn is an early childhood educator and president of CAO Training Associates which offers workshops on parenting and early childhood education. She is the mother of six grown children and grandmother of thirteen.
Dear Carol,

When I was at the library, my five-year-old threw a tantrum because she didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know what to do and was embarrassed because people were staring and making rude comments. To make matters worse, I had my other children with me. What could I have done to handle this situation and to prevent a similar situation in the future?

Flustered Mom
Dear reader,

When children exhibit any challenging behavior they are sending us a message. As adults we need to learn to interpret the message behind a behavior before we can work toward helping children use acceptable ways to get their needs met.

In Cradling Literacy, a ZERO TO THREE training curriculum that I helped to develop, we use the acronym WARM in order to help caregivers remember how to deal with challenging behaviors.

Wonder: First, I suggest that you wonder how you feel when this is happening and how the child might be feeling. You may be embarrassed, angry, overwhelmed or frustrated that this is happening-again! The child might be frustrated that her needs are not being met. Perhaps she wanted a special book that had already been checked out of the library and does not know how to express her feelings in words. Once you have a handle on your own feelings, you need to remain calm. Begin with the “w” in WARM and think about both of your feelings, then acknowledge out loud what the child might be feeling.

Acknowledge: You can describe your child’s behavior for her by saying something like, “I see you lying on the floor, kicking your legs and crying. You look mad.” When you acknowledge her feelings, this gives the child some time to realize what she is doing and know that you understand her message.

Respond: The next step is to respond by asking, “How can I help you?” You will have to get close to the child, be sure she and others are safe, and stay with her while you respond. This cannot be done quickly, for instance while you are walking away from her, or tending to the other children. This is where you have to ignore those unfriendly stares, too.

Move On: Many times children will just stop because your understanding of their feelings diffuses the situation. Sometimes they go on so you have to “move on.” Helping them and yourself to move on is not easy, but necessary. You can offer something like, “I see you need my help. You can stand up by yourself or I can pick you up, you decide.” Give the child some time and if she does not get up, you will have to follow through by saying, “You are telling me you want my help, so I will pick you up.” Do this and move on.

The best way to avoid this happening again is to prepare children for outings. Let them know when you are leaving home and leaving the store or library. I call this “five minutes notice.” Give them some cues. Use words or signals. You might say, “Ready, set, go,” give a “high five,” or a hug to signal it’s time to leave.

All this being said, I do understand your frustration and embarrassment when people stare or make comments when your child is exhibiting a challenging behavior.

Here are some things that might help:
•    Stay calm and know that your understanding guidance is what child needs most in order to learn discipline how self-regulate.
•    Once you have gotten through one of these tantrums, be proactive. Read stories will help understand her own other people’s feelings, so she can work difficult situations.
•    Follow with consequences. Perhaps when does not comply expectations, need wait before joining activity again.
•    Plan activities children are over-tired from a long day at school or care.

Best wishes to you and your growing family!


Do you have a parenting question that you’d like answered?
Email Carol Osborn at


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