When Your Child Throws a Tantrum in Public: 4 Steps to Regain Control

“Please…make it stop!”

With most of life’s problems, we can’t just ignore them and hope they’ll go away. However, tantrums can be an exception. With the right technique, you can ignore your child’s tantrums and eliminate them–hopefully forever. But it takes guts and determination.

My Tantrum Hell

When my son Kyle was five, his autism made language difficult. Rather than express his frustration in words, he screamed. He would lay on the floor, screeching, sometimes hitting himself and kicking his feet. This made traveling to public places a challenge. At the grocery store, Kyle would spot a toy or book and grab it. If I removed it from his grasp (even to buy it) it would trigger a tantrum so severe I often had to leave the store, embarrassed, abandoning my half-full grocery cart. Worse were the disgusted stares of onlookers, who, not realizing Kyle was autistic, seemed to say, “Lady, get control of your bratty kid.”

The Technique

At the U.C. San Diego Autism Laboratory, I learned a technique which cured Kyle of his tantrums. Certainly there is no 100% fool-proof solution for every tantrum-throwing child, but I found this method to be tremendously effective.

Imagine you’re at the mall, and your child begins to throw a fit. Try the following steps:

1. Firmly hold his hand. This is to ensure he doesn’t run away, hurt himself, or hurt other people.

2. Say, “When you stop screaming, I will speak to you.” Don’t say anything else.

3. While he tantrums, turn your head completely away from him and do not allow him to see your face. Pretend not to hear him. Don’t worry about what other people think. Continue to walk toward your destination. If he plays “dead weight” or flails, keep holding his hand, standing with your head turned, as long as it takes. (This is easier said than done, but you can do it.) If you absolutely must carry him, do so robotically, without emotion. Put him down as soon as you possibly can.

4. Immediately make eye contact and speak to him when he is calm. If your child stops screaming and speaks (without yelling), turn quickly and look at him. “Oh, did you say something?” Give him your undivided attention as long as he is behaving rationally. Make eye contact and talk in a friendly tone. You are now doing the opposite of what you were before. Kneel down and get on his level. Show interest in what he has to say. Remain firm in your position, but calmly explain. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get that toy you wanted. It’s just too expensive.”

Repeat the above steps as often as necessary. You may even need to switch back and forth into ignoring/non-ignoring modes several times, using his behavior as the “trigger.” If he begins to scream or wail again, take his hand, stand up, and turn your face away from him. Do not say a word. You want him to feel invisible when he is having a tantrum.

Remember, you are teaching him self-control, so hang on to yours. Your child craves your attention. If he only has your focus when he is calm and rational, he will eventually choose to behave that way.

When I used this method with Kyle, he was only minimally verbal. He could utter some phrases, but certainly not carry on a meaningful conversation. I was doubtful that these steps would work on a child who couldn’t be reasoned with. I thought that Kyle’s tantrums were due solely to his autism, and that they couldn’t be helped. I was wrong. I had underestimated Kyle’s ability to manipulate me. Often times we do this with special needs children–we let them get away with inappropriate behaviors because we assume they “can’t help it.”

WARNING: Ignoring outbursts will first cause them to become worse. Your child will think, “Hmmm, screaming and kicking always worked before. Maybe I need to be louder.” When this happens, don’t assume that your efforts aren’t working. It may take time before he “gets” it.

I used this ignoring technique with Kyle on four separate occasions, gritting my teeth as I endured his hysteria. It wasn’t easy. Each episode seemed to be worse than the last. I felt like giving up. Then, suddenly, as if by magic, the tantrums ceased. Today Kyle is thirteen. He still struggles with the symptoms of Autistic Disorder, but is very well-behaved.