Diffuse a public temper tantrum without losing your cool

Kara Koller reads with her children Leah, 5, and Elliott, 2, at Martin Library in York. (Photo by Kate Penn)

for Smart

Elizabeth Sowers, owner of Mommy’s Lil’ Rascals Consignment Store in Manchester Township, deals with temper tantrums every day. And she’s not talking about her pint-sized clients.

Sowers, a mother of three, said she’s seen parents lose control, screaming and cursing at their young children.

Or worse.

“Sadly, we’ve seen people give (their children) a whack across the butt in public,” Sowers said. “For me, as a business owner, I can’t do anything. It’s hard to sit and watch that. You watch them leave and pray for the child.”

Paula Gilbert, director of youth services for York County Libraries, agrees that yelling and threats never work. “When your child is at that point where they’ve lost control or yelling, telling the child to stop or forcibly making the child sit is not going to work.”

So what does work?

Daniel Roe, who directs children through exhibits and museums as director of education for York County Heritage Trust, said, “In general, losing your temper isn’t typically going to be a good experience. Stay calm, calmly address situations.”

Roe, Gilbert and Sowers can spot what works and what doesn’t when children’s behavior tiptoes toward trouble. They’re also parents who’ve been there themselves. Here are their tips.

Stay Calm and redirect

A few weeks ago, Sowers had a costumer with a young toddler. The little boy climbed in and out of baby toys for which he was too big.

But the mom knew just what to do. She took him by the hand and calmly pointed out the toys that he could explore. Mommy’s Little Rascals fills the bottom shelves of the toy section with for-sale items that children are encouraged to play with.

“He instantly sat down and starting playing,” said Sowers, who added that the child did get up and go toward the baby section a few more times. Each time, the mom led him back toward a different toy he could play with. “For 20 minutes of shopping, I think that was pretty good.”

Take a breather

Sometimes all an about-to-lose-it child needs is a break.

Gilbert said she appreciates the parents who quietly step out with a disruptive child during programs or story times. “You’re not embarrassing the child; you’re not creating a problem; you’re allowing that child a moment to regroup,” she said. “Some people try to just shush the child, and that’s never going to happen.”

A mini-break works for Roe, too, who manages children whose excitement about their field trip threatens to spill over into hyperactivity. “Usually we’ll do a transition between exhibits. A walk between (them) might be time to settle down,” he said. “One of our little techniques is to calmly say that if everyone is quiet, we’ll move on.”

Prevention is the best cure

Sowers once asked a customer about her trick to keeping her children so well-behaved at the store. The mom told her that, on the way to Mommy’s Lil’ Rascals, she briefed her children on what they’d be doing, what her expectations for their behavior were and what would happen if they misbehaved.

“That way,” Sowers said, “when a problem does come up, the child already knows what the consequences are: ‘We will leave and we will not spend your $2 today.’”

Prep is key for Sowers outside of work, too, when she heads out with her own 1-year-old daughter. “I make sure I have her bag with snacks, her cup and toys that we don’t usually play with,” she said.

Be aware

Gilbert has often seen moms catching up with each other while their children run and scream in the children’s room of the library. The moms ignore the behavior, and the librarians have to step in.

“That’s the kind of thing that just drives me crazy,” Gilbert said. “It’s a twofold thing. Some of it is, they (the moms) want a break themselves. And some of it is that they just don’t know any better. And that’s a teachable moment for the parent, too.”

But she’s also seen parents do everything right, making the trip to the library enjoyable for everyone.

Recently, a 3-year-old was at the Martin Library children’s room train table with other children. A child took the toy the 3-year-old was playing with.

“This child was just so upset and started to have a temper tantrum,” Gilbert said. Though Gilbert was ready to step in, she didn’t have to. The child’s mom got eye-level with her son, asked him what was wrong and worked with him to find a different toy.

“She did a great job and didn’t wait. She just stepped right up and wanted to diffuse the situation by not accusing the other child, not raising her voice at all.”

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