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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
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Column Should I intervene if a child is having a tantrum?

Tantrums are hard. They’re hard on the child and on the parents – but what should you do if you see a stranger’s child having a tantrum? Sinéad Fox gives some tips.

“IT’S HARD HAVING tantrums” a wise two-year-old consoled my three-year-old lately, when he was mid tantrum. “Yeah” he sobbed and nodded in agreement, tears rolling down his cheeks. And I realised that she was speaking more sense than most adults when confronted with a tantrumming child.

Tantrums are hard.

They’re hard on the child, on the parents, on the other siblings.

It’s even harder when it’s in public. And everyone is watching. And some are judging. And then others decide to intervene.

I’ve heard a soundbite of coverage on the Liveline programme on RTE in the past few weeks, of a well spoken lady complaining about seeing a child tantrumming and saying that she just had to intervene. She didn’t – trust me on this one.

A few weeks ago my emotional three-year-old had a massive tantrum in a local supermarket. He wanted me to buy him a specific pair of trousers that were three sizes too small. I quite reasonably refused, he stamped and screamed. I bent down to talk to him at eye level. I asked what I could do to help. I explained why he couldn’t have them. I used my calm voice. I offered a hug, or to carry him. Nothing would please him.

So I kept going to the Customer Service desk to go about my business and he followed me whinging and moaning. He needed to get the upset out of his system. We both knew this. Something would eventually distract him and we could all move on. Until then he would whinge.

He has big brown eyes, they’re his trademark, conveying his every emotion, giving away his torment. Other shoppers looked sympathetically at him, and then at me, pushing a buggy with a small baby, and trying to get a five-year-old and sobbing three-year-old to follow me. Some looked disapprovingly, others, with their own small children in tow gave me supportive, sympathetic glances. I trudged on.

I know how to handle my child

Because I know my child. I know that this will pass. It upsets me to see him this way but I know how stubborn he is, how neither scolding nor hugs will fix this, how changing the subject won’t work. We will wait it out, wail it out and he will be fine. Noisy, but fine. In the meantime, I’ll try not to get stressed by the scene we are inevitably causing.

I reached my destination with my troupe. The lady on the customer service desk took one look at the sad boy and held out a sweet, asking – in front of him, while waving the shiny colourful wrapper – if he could have it. If I’d said no the tantrum would have reached a new level. I felt my parenting tested to the max, so I let him have the stupid sweet. He continued to sob and whine, as I knew he would. The tantrum needed to run its course. The interference had possibly only served to prolong it and to make him sticky. I was annoyed, I felt judged, but I let it slide. I wished that I hadn’t.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and I was in the same store, with the same child tantrumming. I needed to keep him close so I sat him on the counter as I paid. He whinged. As I paid the checkout lady tutted, looked at the very sad boy and said “OH FOR GOODNESS SAKE” crossly. He looked at her, looked at me and increased his volume. This one I couldn’t let lie. I looked her straight in the eye and said calmly “that was most unhelpful”. She seemed startled and apologised immediately. She knew by my tone and his reaction that she had done wrong. He most likely wasn’t the first (nor the fifth) tantrumming child that she had met that day, her patience may have been tested too, but she had interfered.

I probably should stop shopping in that store, as it clearly brings out the worst in my child, and possibly in me.

Some unsolicited advice to onlookers

Let me give some unsolicited advice to onlookers on how to act when you see a parent struggling with their tantrumming child. It’s pretty simple really.

  • If you see a tantrumming child please don’t scold the child.
  • Please don’t scold the parent or give disapproving looks.
  • Please don’t offer the child bribes or treats.
  • It would be nice if you’d consult with the parents before making any offers/bribes/treats.
  • Perhaps offer to carry their shopping or to watch another child while they deal with/wrestle with the upset child.

But most of all: Put yourself in their shoes, in my shoes, and leave them alone, they’ll work it out. They know their child. If they need your help they’ll ask.

Sinéad Fox lives in Wexford with her three young and (often) well behaved children.
She spends her time commuting, cooking, wiping noses, mopping up spills and ‘adventuring’. Then, when they’re all asleep she writes about it on her blog Bumbles of Rice.
Find Sinéad on twitter @Bumblesofrice and on Facebook.

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