Buy The Cookie And Other Ways To Survive Your Child’s Public Meltdowns

by Karen Hammerling
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy and H. Armstrong Roberts/Cavan Images/Getty

I wish I could give you the quick and comforting advice as how to end your child’s public meltdown, and every public meltdown thereafter. But, I don’t have that gem of wisdom to bestow. I don’t have the magical answer, and I doubt anyone else does. If there was an ubiquitous solution to end every childish outburst, that shit would have been uncovered years ago and carefully passed down with more value than gold.

Nope, I’m here for you, Mama and Daddy. Meltdowns are roooouuuugh and require large amounts of patience, energy, maturity, grace, and humility. I don’t know why your child is throwing their current tantrum. Maybe they want a cracker. Maybe they wanted to be the first to get in the car. Maybe they’re having an existential crisis that has hit them so hard that hardly a nap and a cuddle would suffice. Maybe they have no idea why they’re losing their ever-loving mind, and they have nothing left in them but absolute commitment to their public display.

Sigh. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. But there are eight tactics that I follow, and I invite you to do the same as a means of survival.

1. Do not bother getting mad at your child.

This might sound difficult, but it’s very rewarding to achieve it. As condescending as it sounds, you are the adult and they are the child. The situation brings stress and exhaustion, and anger isn’t worth the energy. Your child may be ruining your moment out, but don’t let them ruin your mood. Remember that they are your child. It isn’t your co-worker who is standing at the door and screaming. It isn’t your brother-in-law who is sitting under the table and pounding at the floor. Don’t let your child hold power and responsibility for your mood. If it helps, look into a mirror and reflect on your situation. Say, “I will not get mad at a two-year old. I will not get mad at a two-year-old.” Let it sink in. Say it until it becomes hilarious. You’ll be okay.

2. Don’t let the tantrum define who your child is.

This flailing, screaming, pile of child is not a new persona. They are not committed to embodying this new state of being for the rest of their life. Each tantrum is a behavior and not a characteristic of your child. It begins and ends on their own clock. You can find tricks to help them speed it along. Once they have let go of this particular rage, they will return to their regular self, whoever that is. And you will be grateful for it.

3. Do not lump this tantrum in with every other tantrum they’ve thrown.

Just as this exhausting display isn’t your child’s new personality, it isn’t an extension of a new beast that has embodied them. Treat each tantrum as its own. Don’t “focus on the whole laundry list,” as my dad used to say. There might be patterns to observe as a whole, but it takes a load off the whole experience if you don’t focus on past examples on top of the most recent. You’ll hold less against your child, as well. Each day is new and has the potential to be better.

4. Look for the reward in the situation.

That might seem impossible when your child is clinging to their chair or shopping cart with everything they’ve got and shrieking their native cry. So, create the reward. I’m a big fan of treating myself to something after the elaborate shit show. Something small, like a bottle of nail polish or a latte. Or something big, like a punch card to the new fondue place in the city. As your child is pounding the floor with their tiny fists, just point and say, “See that? That’s a dessert at The Cheesecake Factory.” Delicious, delicious meltdown. My husband and I like to calmly keep track of our big ticket dinners that our children have destroyed. As soon as each child gets their first job, they owe us a crab leg dinner due to that one fateful August evening out. It’s nice to have things to look forward to.

5. The meltdown isn’t a product of your parenting.

I took an advanced class in behavior in grad school, and was fully convinced that behavior was shaped by environment. I even made behaviorism part of my teaching philosophy. After having three kids in three and-a-half years, I’m not so certain of anything anymore. I’ve never taught them to tantrum and I’ve certainly never praised them for it. I birthed three little goobers with lots of emotions, and they have the hardest time regulating them. The good thing about your toddler is that they aren’t a final product of anything. And when they grow up and accept the Nobel Peace Prize, you can have a good laugh over all the times you had to sling them over your shoulder like an overly emotional rag doll when you were at the grocery store.

6. It’s okay to leave.

I love playing the “we’re leaving” card. I much prefer giving my kids the speech that lets them know that they’re in trouble when we’re alone, away from the public eye. I much prefer the option that doesn’t make us a spectacle. As a bonus, I believe the privacy it gives my child is an act of respect. If nothing else, it sometimes serves as a reset button for my child to get it together before facing the music once again.

7. Sometimes you have to buy them the cookie/small toy.

It’s painful. It goes against your beliefs. You feel defeated. You’re afraid you’re just encouraging your child. Sometimes, it’s the best solution and you just have to suck it up.

When I was shopping at a novelty store in a ritzy Chicago suburb in my late teens, I witnessed an outstanding spectacle made by a young boy. He made his orders, and his mother looked dead in the eyes as she snatched up not one, but two toys to meet his demands at the cash register. I averted my eyes and felt a deep sadness and disapproval towards the mom’s parenting. Surely, she was raising a spoiled child who would continue life with a profound sense of entitlement. Older me shakes my head and realizes that I don’t know the whole story. Maybe they had a few crucial errands to run and she had to keep the peace before attending a formal dinner with her child and the CEO of her company. The talk and discipline might come later. Ultimately, it’s none of my business, and older me is just going to give her the benefit of the doubt.

By now, you’re aware that you’re not always going to have it all. Sometimes, you’re not going to have the flawless meal out. As proud as you may be, sometimes you’re going to have to pick your battles. My middle child is undergoing testing because he is showing signs of autism. He has difficulty regulating his emotions and sometimes insists that things happen a certain way. I like to offer that he makes choices where he can so that he experiences some freedom in life. I let him choose the table. I let him enter the store first. I let him put in his order, if he feels so obliged. Once, when a barista wrote his name on his cup, he lost his shit because he wasn’t in the mood for any letters. My youngest is almost two, and is getting ideas of his own. I try to keep my priorities straight and let them think they’re winning the battle … while I’m winning the war.

8. It doesn’t matter what others think.

This is the most powerful detail to embrace once you’ve given up a few fucks. It’s so conveniently, therapeutically, and refreshingly true. Even if you’ve spent your whole life being tight-lipped about religion and politics, controversy will find you once you’ve had kids. People who have never met you will have precious opinions about how you rear your children. All parents try to find that sweet spot between obedient soldier and independent explorer for their kid, and it won’t always fall into the same place for other people.

I don’t care if the evasive, opinionated, offending person had a few courses in early childhood education, has once seen a child in a movie, or even shares some DNA with your kid. Their judgments don’t matter.

More often than snide remarks, I receive sympathetic smiles. And with those smiles I sometimes receive applause, cheers, pats on the back, and comments like “You’ve got this! You’re a great mom!”

All from people who I’ve never met before. Positive feedback isn’t necessary, but dammit, it sometimes helps.

Keep plugging along. Those who matter are pulling for you.

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