Ask Rachel: “How do I deal with my toddler’s ‘supermarket meltdowns’?”

by Rachel Fitz-Desorgher |
Published on

"Every time I’m at the supermarket with my 2-year old toddler, she asks for sweets or chocolate and then has a massive meltdown when I say “No!”. She screams and sobs and I feel so embarrassed that I generally give in because, although I know it isn’t the right thing to do, I don’t know how else to stop it. Please help!"

The bottom lip trembles, the mouth opens and the red mist descends. Your toddler drops to the floor in full public view and simply rages. You can feel the judgemental gaze of every person in the store and your neck prickles with embarrassment. You wish the ground would swallow you up and, in a fit of fluster, you do all the wrong things to try and stop the noise - you plead, bribe, hiss, threaten ...

We have all been there and, although we know that toddlers have tantrums, we feel that, if only our parenting skills were a little better, our toddler would somehow be the one toddler in the world to skip this stage!

Well, you and I live in the real world so let’s have a good look at why toddlers tantrum, how we can reduce the number they have and how we can handle them better when one kicks off despite our best efforts.

Why the tantrums?

Tantrums start to emerge in the second year, with some toddlers starting earlier or later than others, and then peak in number and intensity in the third year before easing off between the third and fourth birthday, They are a natural part of a little one’s development towards independence and so, rather than feeling upset about them, we should accept them as a sign that our baby is growing up.

As the emotional life of a little one develops, so the ability to get frustrated and overwhelmed increases and, with the desire for independence, frustration is a more and more frequent visitor. Even grown-ups sometimes get overwrought with frustration and “blow a fuse” so we can all relate to the feelings which might be flooding our toddler’s body mid-tantrum. It is horrible and exhausting for you and terrifying for her. You know it will end and she will be quite ok again, but she has no such internal reassurance.

This overwhelm is more likely to happen (just as with us) when little ones are over-tired, over-hungry or, as we’ve already seen, over-frustrated and so, knowing that, we can head them off if we are smart. All toddlers need naps - they won’t ask for them and they won’t thank you when they have had one and, quite often, they will insist that they really don’t need one … but they do!

Likewise, your growing toddler needs regular fuel stops and those re-fuels should consist of plenty of complex carbs and calorie-dense family foods for energy and brain development. If your child is running (quite literally) on empty then you can expect them to be really “hangry”.

Reduce frustration by increasing independence - give your toddler the space and time to make simple choices of what to wear, have some “free to explore” cupboards, keep hair short and shoes easy to do up and ensure that toys are kept ready to hand and simple to tidy away. There is no value for you or your toddler in having to cope with frequent tantrums so reduce them with clever strategies and then deal quickly and gently with those you simply cannot avoid.

So … you have headed off to the supermarket with a well-rested child, you have made sure to take some tasty snacks along for them and you have been smart enough to let her help you bag up the carrots and choose the breakfast cereal. Then the dreaded sweetie aisle looms, your stomach knots and you hope that you can get past it double-quick before your little one spots it. But, despite your efforts to avoid a melt-down, here you are again, faced in public with a miserable, raging toddler and the gaze of the world searing into you. What can you do?

Well the cardinal rule of handling a tantrum is to never let a tantrum change anything - if you have said “no sweets” then no amount of fury or sobbing should change that. If you have said “you can have a comic but not sweets” then, when the tantrum has blown itself out, you still buy that comic. If you have said “you can have chocolate but not jelly sweets” then chocolate stays on the cards. Far from being a reward, this simply says that a tantrum has no power for good or bad. It changes nothing.

Now, take a look at the surroundings and make a quick choice about how and where to handle this tantrum:

  • Ignore - if you feel confident to do this then allow your toddler to carry on howling on the floor whilst you sit close by and stay calm and quiet (read a magazine or manage your emails if it helps). A simple “You’re quite safe, sweetie! I’ll stay here and you let me know when this has passed” is all that is needed. No need for anger or threats, no offer of rewards and no attempt to negotiate or jolly them out of this - the red mist is down and your child is beyond reason. But it will pass and then you can just carry on where you left off.

  • Remove and ignore - if you cannot keep your child safe where they are, or if you feel it is too public, quickly lift your child as safely as possible and take them outside or to a quiet, safe spot. Put them down and then ignore them. Ignoring them is not cruel - imagine if you were having an almighty melt-down and people were trying to talk to you and negotiate. Just give your child some respectful peace and stay close to keep them safe. A quick reassurance that “I am just here. Let me know when this has gone …” gently lets them know that you are not frightened by the power of this tantrum and that it will pass. Everyone is quite safe.

  • Hold - sometimes a child is throwing themselves around and are risking hurting themselves, others, or things. If you can do this kindly and with love then safely hold your tantrumming toddler. Sit down and pull them calmly onto your lap. Hold them firmly and make sure that you face them away so that you cannot get hurt by a swinging head. Hold flailing arms in a cuddly wrap around hold and keep saying calmly “It’s ok, I’ve got you! You can’t hurt me or yourself. This will pass. You’re safe and I love you.” Keep gently repeating this and it will pass, I promise. Once the storm has subsided, gently ask if they are ready for you to let go (don’t be surprised if they say no - you are helping contain their overwhelm and it can be very comforting for them to feel you hugging them). When they are ready to be released, take a deep breath and then get back to your shopping.

Remember that a tantrum is scary enough for your little one so do not increase their fear with your anger and frustration. Keep your voice gentle and calm. Don’t be tempted to talk about the tantrum with them afterwards  - how would you like to dissect your emotional blow-outs? And remember - NEVER let a tantrum change anything.

As children get older, they become better able to manage their frustration and also better at knowing what sparks a melt-down and so how to avoid or handle one. By handling this phase calmly and confidently, with kindness and respect, you give your child emotional coping strategies for when, in years to come, the world is all just a bit too much!

Now read:

8 ways to manage toddler tantrums according to a psychologist

5 easy tips to handle your toddler’s sleep tantrums


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