6 Effective Strategies for Handling Tantrums in Public

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
July 26, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

Picture this: you’re in the grocery store with your toddler. You need to get some items from the snack aisle, but you don’t want your toddler to see the cookies. Otherwise, they’ll have one of their infamous cookie tantrums (and you’re not emotionally or physically ready for that).

So, you whip out some toys you rummaged from the car as decoys and manage to keep them happily distracted while you quickly pass by the cookies. 

You get in, and get out fast, so nobody gets hurt. 

You stealthy place the snacks into your cart, hiding them beneath the loaf of bread, careful not to draw attention to the goodies. 

Just when you think you’ve successfully avoided a cookie tantrum, you turn the cart towards the cash register and BOOM, you’re facing a pyramid of cookies, majestically displayed for the world to see. 

Your toddler throws their decoy toys to the ground, eyes locked in like lasers on the cookies.

You brace yourself for what inevitably comes next… 





Heads turn towards your screaming toddler, as they practically leap out of the cart towards the cookie display.

If you’ve ever been a parent that is fearful of your child having a tantrum in public, you aren’t alone.

Here’s the cold, hard, truth: for so many parents, public tantrums feel incredibly embarrassing. 

Between the pitiful looks from the mothers with sleeping newborns and the judgmental “tisk, tisk” from the elderly woman in aisle 7, public tantrums can be a recipe for anxiety, stress, and shame. 

Imagine what it would be like to confidently walk into the grocery store, pass through the snack aisle, and calmly cope with a cookie tantrum! 

Guess what? It is possible!

1. Imagine Your Child’s Perspective

It can be helpful to imagine a child’s perspective before going into the store. 

From your child’s perspective, they’re being carted into a new place, with different smells, lighting, sounds, and people, and passing by some of their favourite items without the skills to control their urges or regulate feelings. They have zero control, all the temptation, and none of the tools to cope. Grocery stores are even designed so that their favourite foods are at their level!

From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to expect toddlers or preschoolers to remain cool, calm, and collected in the store. In fact, it makes more sense to anticipate a tantrum!

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A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

2. Preparing for the Unexpected

It’s important to anticipate potential tantrum triggers and stay in tune with your child’s emotions. For example, you might prepare for a cookie tantrum, by packing a snack for the grocery store, or timing the grocery run right after lunch so your toddler’s belly is full. 

Here are a few examples of common tantrum triggers for toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Hunger/thirst 
  • Discomfort from teething
  • Prolonged sitting 
  • Transitioning from one activity to the next
  • Wanting a toy they can’t have 
  • Crowded rooms, or busy schedules 
  • Potty accidents or sitting in dirty/wet clothing 
  • Being in the sun for long periods

If you know your child’s triggers, you can proactively prepare yourself for car rides, trips to the store, and play dates. To minimise the chance of tantrums, make a list of the triggers, and beside each trigger, write down one small thing you can pack along to prevent/reduce a tantrum. 

As a mom myself, here is a list of items I keep in my diaper bag at all times, to prepare for the unexpected: 

  • Small toys and books
  • Water, applesauce pouches, crackers
  • Extra change of clothes, diapers, and wipes 
  • First aid kit and medicine 
  • Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen

3. Tell Your Child The Plan

Prepare your child by telling them what to expect when you’re out. Help them anticipate the expectations, which can make them feel a sense of control when they’re in unfamiliar spaces.

This might sound like: 

  • “We’re going to the park. We can’t stay as long as we did yesterday. I’ll set a timer for 15 minutes so we know when to leave.”
  • “We’re going to go to the store. We won’t be getting any toys while we’re there. Would you like to take a toy from home to play with in the cart?”
  • “On the way to the playdate, we’re going to stop at the cafe. You won’t be able to eat a whole donut this time, but you can pick out one for us to split.” 

If you notice your child is getting dysregulated, you can remind them of the plan. 

  • “Remember the plan, we’re going to have a snack when we get home. Should we have oranges with our cookies or apple slices?”
  • “Ahhh! You forgot the plan! We’re going to split a donut. Would you like the chocolate glazed or the sprinkled one?”

Giving your child a heads-up helps them feel prepared! 

4. Responding Calmly and Confidently in the Moment

It’s tricky to stay calm, especially when you are worried about what other people are thinking of you.

In the moment when your child is having a tantrum in public, remember this one thing:

“The most important thing at this moment is showing up for my child. I am going to look into my child’s eyes and focus on being the calm caregiver they need. My child needs me right now.”

Then, as you tune in with your child, I want you to imagine that everyone else’s opinions are just bouncing off you. If they are upset with your toddler, that is not your responsibility at this moment. Your responsibility is to show up for your child.

On a deeper level, you can imagine that the strangers in the store mostly have compassion for you. Most people have come in contact with a tantruming toddler, and their stares might just be stares of compassion. (And, even if they are not, it’s easier to imagine people are coming from a place of compassion rather than judgment!)

Take a deep breath. I know this is easier said than done. It takes practice and mindset shifts such as the one we just covered to help you navigate public tantrums!

5. Finding a Safe Space to Navigate the Tantrum

Now, you are trying your best to stay calm, but your child is still having an epic tantrum.

The next thing you want to do is to see if there is a quiet space you can take your child as you walk them through their feelings. This could be as simple as a quiet aisle in the grocery store, taking them to the washroom, or even putting your cart somewhere and stepping outside for a moment if it’s the type of tantrum that is going to take some time to calm down.

There are several benefits to finding a temporary quiet area that allows both parent and child space to navigate a tantrum. Finding a space like this can:

  • Reduce chaos and overstimulation for the child and the parent
  • Offer privacy, safety, and comfort to release feelings 
  • Prevents further escalation
  • Protects your child from the stares and comments of strangers
  • Gives you a chance to connect with your child

6. Offer a Creative Yes

After you validate your child’s feelings and create a safe space for them to release their tears, the creative yes can be a really powerful tool.

Instead of saying “no” to all of your child’s requests, leading to even more power struggles and tantrums, see if there is a way you can shift your no to a yes! 

Here are a few examples:

Example 1: The Grocery Store Tantrum

  • Situation: A toddler is having a meltdown in the grocery store because they want a cookie.
  • Creative Yes: “I hear you. You want a cookie! When we get home, we can eat a cookie on the back deck or the kitchen table – what do you think we should do?”

Example 2: The Playground Tantrum

  • Situation: Your toddler has a tantrum when you tell them it’s time to leave the park.
  • Creative Yes: “I know you’re having so much fun here, but it’s time to go home. Should we hop like a bunny to get to the car, or slither like a snake?”

Example 3: The Restaurant Tantrum

  • Situation: Your toddler throws a fit while you’re waiting for your food at a restaurant.
  • Creative Yes: “The waiter gave me an important mission. We have to find all of the blue items in this room. Can you help me complete this mission?” 

The Creative Yes is a wonderful tool for several reasons!

  1. It can help you avoid a power struggle.
  2. It can keep you cool, calm and collected.
  3. It often minimising disruptions.
  4. Allows you to approach your toddler’s tantrum in a respectful way.
  5. It preserves the parent-child relationship.
  6. Teaches your child how to adapt to difficult situations.
  7. Encourages a child to build social and emotional awareness.

Public tantrums are inevitable, but fear not! You’ve got this. 

You can cope. You can confidently walk into the grocery store, pass through the snack aisle, and calmly navigate a cookie tantrum. 

You don’t have to avoid the snack aisle, stop going out to restaurants, or stop running errands with your toddler because you have the skills to cope!

For specific tools and strategies for tantrums, disciplining effectively, and reframing challenging behaviour, check out our online Parenting Little Kids course!

Key Takeaways

  • Toddlers and preschoolers will often feel overwhelmed in new or busy environments.
  • Anticipating potential tantrum triggers and preparing for them can ease the stress of public outings.
  • Keep your child in the loop about the day’s plan to make them feel more control over the situation.
  • When a tantrum happens, remember that your primary responsibility is to support your child.
  • If a tantrum escalates, try finding a quieter space to help you and your child regroup and calm down.

Article By

Shannon Wassenaar
Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.