Psychologically Speaking: Taming the tantrum

Tots and supermarkets can be a potentially explosive situation.

baby shopping 88 (photo credit: )
baby shopping 88
(photo credit: )
Dear Dr. Batya, I hate taking my three-year-old to the grocery store. She can scream because she wants something and people stare and comment, making me feel terrible. Last week I ended up leaving the store with only half of my shopping completed. I don't have the option to shop without her so please give me some suggestions. - A.S., Beit Shemesh Shopping for groceries can be an enjoyable and educational experience for both of you. Honestly! You just have to set up the situation correctly. Kids at this age love to be involved and explore, so you need to capitalize on this. Too often we get stressed, give in so as to quiet our child and finish quickly, or leave in embarrassment. These inadvertently create greater problems for the next visit. Whether in a store, home or at nursery school, find out why your daughter is having a temper tantrum. Is she tired, hungry or unwell? Are you taking too long, completely ignoring her, or are your expectations unrealistic? Is she frustrated, angry or anxious? Is she testing limits or simply enjoying the power that comes with the word "no"? Once you understand why she's screaming, whining or crying, it's easier to get her to stop. Temper tantrums often worsen if you enter a battle of wills and struggle for control. If you give in to appease your daughter, she will get the message that the best way to achieve what she wants is to have a tantrum, and the next time, the tantrum will be longer, louder and harder to cope with. Here are a few suggestions: 1) Try not to go shopping when your child is hungry or tired. If you absolutely must, perhaps start the trip with a choice of a nutritious snack (such as a cheese string or some Cheerios) in an attempt to preempt any difficulties. 2) Set appropriate and consistent limits. For example, the rule may be that in general, there aren't treats when you go grocery shopping and she can't ask for any. You may from time to time (but not each trip) surprise her with a reward for previous good behavior, such as helping you out with her baby brother. As such, you may let her pick out a treat from a choice of two selections that you will offer her and she can then receive her treat after dinner. Whatever the rule, you may be flexible from time to time, but you must be consistent. Say what you mean so she knows the rule, and mean what you say. If you say something, follow through each time. She should also know that you and daddy will provide a united front and neither will give in to her. 3) Let your daughter help you shop by giving her specific tasks. Perhaps she will choose which colored peppers to buy, put the apples into a bag or stack the yogurts into the cart. Kids love to be asked for and appreciated for their advice, and if she helps you, you may just discover that she'll sample a new vegetable that you picked out. If you are in a hurry and don't have time to have her assist in the actual shop, let her know this. Perhaps this is the day that she can help you hold the list, push the shopping cart or spot the next item. 4) If in spite of all of your good efforts, your daughter does have a tantrum (and in the beginning she very well might), remind her about the rule early on (there are no treats) and let her know that it is non-negotiable. At this point, your goal is to distract her by redirecting her attention elsewhere and not giving her attention for her negative behavior. If she continues, she may have to go into "time-out" where you'll now ignore her. You can calmly and quietly remind her that as soon as she stops you will attend to her again. While you obviously can't leave her completely alone to calm down and respond, you can remind her that we don't scream in the store but instead use our indoor voice to tell mom what we want. As soon as she calms down or "forgets" her negative behavior, you once again want to "catch her doing something good" and reinvolve her in your shopping mission. 5) Remember, all along your goal is to reward her through verbal praise before, during and after the shopping trip for her excellent behavior - helping you shop, being patient, eating a nutritious snack, listening to you, etc. You may even want to let her know that because she was so well behaved and you got your shopping done with her help, you now have time to go for ice cream, watch a show or play a game together when the groceries are put away. I'm not big on frequent "time-outs" but prefer teaching your daughter how to communicate, problem solve and cope with anger or other feelings. If you do put her in time-out, the bedroom, a child's haven, should never be used. Better a corner in a room away from everyone for preferably less time than the actual age of a child. So a three-year-old should initially never go in time-out for more than two minutes. To a child this is a very long time. I don't believe there is ever justification for hitting a child and it usually signifies that we adults have lost control. I must confess when my children were young, bribing them worked well. All three learned to sit very well in synagogue for increasingly long periods of time with special shul books and a lollipop given at just the right moment. When they had had enough, I took them out for a break. Temper tantrums can be very stressful, but if handled correctly, I promise, they too will pass and before you know it, your daughter will be asking you to go shopping with her. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. [email protected]