In one of my classes, one of the parents shared that he had been at Walmart at 10:30 at night and saw a toddler throwing an inconsolable fit from the isle to the check stand and then all the way out the door. This parent then looked at me baffled and asked, “What can a parent do in that situation?”
Good question. The first thing to consider is if the behavior is stemming from an unmet need. In this example the fact that it was 10:30pm and the toddler was at Walmart instead of asleep in bed lets us know that the behavior may be stemming from an unmet need – the need for sleep.
My wife taught me about that need when my oldest was three-years-old. My little girl was being defiant and downright miserable. I thought to myself that this was unacceptable behavior and I started to discipline her. My wife recognized something that I did not. She recognized that my little girl was tired and in desperate need of a nap. My wife took her into her room and laid her down for a nap. Within a few minutes my little girl was fast asleep. That day I learned what most parents already knew – when kids are tired and they need sleep, filling the need is more effective than disciplining the behavior.
Now to get back to the toddler in Walmart. If the toddler’s fit is related to the toddler’s need for sleep the best thing a parent can do is fill the need by getting him back home into bed as quickly and lovingly as possible.
But what if the fit is not related to being tired? What does a parent do when the child throws a fit in the store and it is related to something else; such as when the parent says no to a child’s request for a toy? What does a parent do in that situation?
Well, there are a lot of things a parent can do immediately such as threaten, scold, moralize, distract, or shame that might produce immediate behavior changes in the short term but that may lead to more problematic behaviors in the long term.
The truth is, unless the parent has set something up beforehand, it is hard to effectively control a child’s fit on the spot in public. Therefore, without a good plan, or some prior behavioral conditioning, sometimes it is best to minimize the casualties and head for the door. That’s right! I said head for the door! Even though on the surface this technique may appear weak or like the parent is giving up, in fact the parent is buying some time in order to create a plan that will help the child suddenly realize how strong the parent really is. You see, Love and Logic parents recognize situations in which they have little control and they avoid getting into power struggles with their kids in these situations. Then, when the parent is ready, and in a situation where the parent does have control, the parent helps the child learn that the child’s life is always happier when the child listens to and follows the requests of the parent.
Some of the skills that Love and Logic parents use to teach this to their children include:
- Practice using the “Uh Oh Song” at home until it effectively gets kids to listen well at home, and then try it out in public
- Use practice sessions where the appropriate behavior is described beforehand and the parent leads the child through the store, not to shop – but to practice the correct behavior
- Create a strategic training session (STS) with the use of a friend who can whisk the child to a safe place where he can throw the fit and the parent can shop in peace
- Delay the consequence so the child thinks he got away with the behavior and then, when the parent is ready with a solid plan, allow the child to suddenly realize he did not get away with the behavior, and in fact his life is now much sadder because of the behavior in the store
Parents find that as they develop using these techniques, and add them to their parenting skills toolbox, going to the store becomes less of a hassle and they can actually enjoy their kids in public.
Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona. He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Institute.
He provides parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculum, classes for parents of children with ADHD, step-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents. He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.