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Home Family Parenting Advice The Competent Parent: The Monster Tantrum

The Competent Parent: The Monster Tantrum

Welcome to a new online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Last week I was shopping and my daughter, 4, just had a monster tantrum. You could hear her all over the store, and nothing I tried made it stop. What’s the best way to handle public tantrums?

-Where’s the Switch?

The best way to handle public tantrums is to avoid setting them up.  The second best way is to take your child home.

Let’s say you absolutely have to buy light bulbs.  You have just enough time to do this after ballet class and before dinner.  Three risk factors are lining up.  In your favor, your four-year-old may not protest riding in a shopping basket because she’s worn out from pliés and pirouettes.  But it’s close to dinner time, her best ballet friend Rochelle was mean to her today, and she has no interest in light bulbs.

Timing is critical in running errands with a young child in tow.  What’s her most cooperative time of day?  How long is she comfortable with being out and about?  When does her hunger alarm go off?  Try to avoid a shopping trip that doesn’t fit her schedule.

If you must run an errand close to feeding time, plan for such emergencies by stocking the car with instant edibles (granola bars, for example) or buy a satisfying snack for her before you head toward the light bulb aisle.  Everyone is more compliant on a full stomach.

Social connections are very important at age four.  “Rochelle says I can’t go to her party!” is a tragedy (albeit usually fleeting) of the worst kind.  If you sense something is wrong, with a little fishing (four-year-olds are pretty free with expressing feelings!) she’ll tell you all about it.  Get in the habit of clearing your mind when you reunite with your daughter, so you have room for hers. Asking her to share her thoughts and feelings is a good preventative measure for emotional explosions.   If appropriate, offer your heartfelt sympathy or some useful advice on sustaining friendships.

What’s her part in the light bulb mission?  A shopping trip, or any errand, can be intellectually satisfying if you make it so.  What part of the house is in the dark?  Why should she care?  If the reason for the shopping trip is all yours and not at all hers, you’ll have to come up with a mission of her own.  Various shopping trips can have four-year-old missions built in.  Have her choose something about the purchase (color, flavor, etc.).  If there’s a produce scale, let her put the fruits and vegetables on it.  Let her look for letters in her name on the packaging. Keep coupons in your wallet for her to match (you don’t even have to buy these things, just keep her sharp eyes in practice).  If something’s in stoick you know she’s had her eye on so you can let Granddaddy know the price – he might just want to buy something like that for the next gifting occasion).  If you use cash (well, some people do!)  let your daughter count out the pennies.  If you keep at least 10 pennies in your wallet, this task can be handled as a matter of routine at each shopping trip.

Now the crisis tantrum.  Two main reasons need to be understood.  1) She is at her wit’s end (she’s tired, hungry, sad, angry, bored to tears, or something equally awful) and you aren’t helping her.  Or 2) She is near her wit’s end and hopes the scene will get some action from you on her behalf.  If, as you say, “Nothing made it stop” take her out as soon as possible.  Game over.  You may have to come back another time for the light bulb.


Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com and we’ll submit it to her!

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