It's something we all have to deal with as parents: At some point, often right around the 2-year mark, our sweet little toddlers morph from adorable cherubs to masters of the meltdown.
It's bad enough when you have to deal with massive temper tantrum at home, but when it happens in a public place, as it often does, it can be even worse. Parents can feel judged, frustrated, inept -- and furious.
Michelle Nicholasen of Somerville, Mass., an award-winning filmmaker for Nova and Frontline and the author of I Break for Meltdowns: How to Handle the Most Exasperating Behavior of Your 2- to 5-Year-Old, has plenty of experience with public meltdowns -- she has five kids under the age of 8, including a set of 5-year-old triplets. The worst incident, she says, took place at a Mexican restaurant in Connecticut, during a long road trip.
"After being cooped up in a minivan for six hours, my kids came unhinged," she told me in an e-mail interview. "One of my daughters took an ornament off the Christmas tree and smashed it. Another one got annoyed with her food and crawled under the table and wouldn’t come out. My oldest daughter, I think 5 at the time, got into an argument with her grandfather and defiantly poured her drink on to the middle of the floor. I will never go back there."
In her book, Nicholasen and Barbara O'Neal, the Educational Director of Arlington Children Center in Arlington, Mass., share their wisdom on what to do in the most cringe-worthy situations. Nicholasen sat down with me recently (at our respective computers) to chat via e-mail about her book, her blog, and how parents can handle the behavioral challenges young kids often present. (You can find the full interview at Write. Edit. Repeat.)
"As parents, we are much more self-conscious about being judged when our child is misbehaving in public," she says. "The things that go through our minds are: Am I raising my child to be a wild animal? Have I not taught him enough manners? My child is acting like a little brat; what am I doing wrong? But even when you do your best, sometimes a collapse will still happen."
Nicholasen suggests a few coping strategies for parents who find themselves facing a screaming sweetie in public:
1.) Find the humor in it. "Imagine a grown-up acting like your child, and you will soon have to stifle a smile."
2.) Take the pressure off of yourself. "Assuming you’ve done your best to prepare our child for the trip, take the pressure off yourself -- this tantrum it not necessarily a reflection of your parenting skills," Nicholasen points out. "Do you know what is, though? How you react to it."
3.) Don't escalate the situation. "Parents can make tantrums much worse by yelling at their child to stop, or by threatening them. The behavior just gets worse. The other hard thing to do is not give in. Once you've set a reasonable boundary (ie, no candy at check out), don't renege just to quiet her down. If you do, she has just learned that her tantrum works. Best to scoop up your tyke and take her to a place where she can calm down without being disruptive to others," she advises. "Is it a drag for the parent? Oh yes, and tiring, too. But wait out the storm and it will pass."
Parents, what was your worst meltdown experience? How did you deal with it?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at email@example.com.