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Over the weekend, paparazzi photos showed actress Charlize Theron with her 4-year-old son, Jackson, in the midst of what is a very familiar scene to parents everywhere: the child tantrum in a parking lot.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a 4-year-old losing his mind in a public place can imagine the scene: a mother hunching over a child implementing the age-old “limp noodle” maneuver and flailing around on the ground, yelling, while the mother tries desperately to keep her cool, hang on to the child, and simultaneously ignore judgmental onlookers — and in this case, the eye of a camera.
Many parents who can relate to the predicament Theron faced would probably like to send her a virtual fistbump. Meanwhile, TODAY regular contributor, pediatrician, and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa (also known as Dr. G.) offers four things to consider when managing the public meltdown:
1. Are they safe?
The first question a parent needs to consider when a meltdown occurs is whether both the parent and the child are physically safe, says Gilboa. “Children don’t think about where they are when they lose control,” she says. “They don’t think about the fact that the middle of the street would be a bad place to throw themselves on the ground, or that they could get hit by a grocery cart. Are they someplace where it is OK to let them lie down for a moment and still be safe? Then let them do it.”
Gilboa added that the parent’s safety matters as much as the child’s. “If a child is hitting you and they’ve gone emotionally beyond the sound of your voice, it’s okay to use your hands to restrain them so they can’t hurt you or other people, such as a sibling,” she says.
2. Are they shushable?
Through age 6, there are a few strategies that can work to de-escalate children quickly, says Gilboa, and one of them is by lowering your own voice. “Children have a natural tendency to mimic,” she says. “If you get quieter, they might get quieter. If you get louder, they will get louder.” She suggests that in the heat of the moment, try using a calm voice and short phrases to “startle” children back into listening to you. Using one or two words, try reminding a child of a fun reward that could be possible if the child calms down — a trip to the park, a treat, a game.
3. Are they scoopable?
The public setting makes a tantrum more visable and long-lasting. If you are physically capable of doing so, Gilboa recommends scooping up the child and removing them from the public eye.
4. Satisfaction can wait — for both of you.
You have to wait until the postgame to have a conversation with your child about the tantrum, says Gilboa. “The advantage to waiting is to give you both time to calm down and to give the parents time to decide what the takeaway is, whether it is to remind the child they sometimes have to wait for a fun thing or express themselves more clearly and calmly,” she says. “It’s too much to expect to find a resolution in the middle of a tantrum. That never happens, not with grown-ups and certainly not with kids!”
And as for the prying eyes of potentially judgmental on-lookers? If they’re not actively trying to show solidarity or be helpful, Gilboa says to avoid a confrontation and exit quickly: “Just say, ‘Thanks for your opinion,’ or, ‘We’re having a day,’” she says. “It’s so tempting to get into it with somebody else because of your own frustrations, but it so rarely makes anything better.”
Dr. Deborah Gilboa, also known as Dr. G, is a parenting expert and the author of "Get the Behavior You Want, Without Being the Parent You Hate!"