Written by Sarah Ledger

In The News

Scream if you want… sorry, what exactly is it you want?

When a mother claimed she’d been asked to leave John Lewis because her child was throwing a tantrum, all sorts of helpful advice popped up on the internet. That’s all well and good in theory, says Sarah Ledger.

child having a tantrum on the groundIt’s been a long time since I’ve spent an afternoon with a tantruming toddler in a retail outlet, but the recent furore over what or what not might have happened in a John Lewis store last week brought it all back. Lindsay Robinson says she was escorted from the premises after her 16-month-old daughter became ‘loud and vocal’. John Lewis is a little more vague on the matter but was sorry enough to offer vouchers and flowers.

Toddlers – and let’s say for the sake of argument the definition covers children between the ages of 16 and 30 months – are deceptive. They look like human beings. They have hair and teeth, can wave hello and goodbye, point at the family pet and, quite often, correctly identify it as a cat. They laugh at funny things – obviously, irony is wasted on them, but broad slapstick tends to go down well – and they recognise the people they love.

But when they kick off, the difference between a toddler and the average human being becomes apparent in the same way the difference between a bursting balloon and a nuclear missile becomes apparent once the button has been pushed.

What advice is out there? It’s years since I last attempted to wrestle a child with the strength and muscle tone of a fully grown wild salmon into a buggy so I took to the internet to see what guidance is available. I was amazed to see the same glib nonsense being peddled. Let me show you what I discovered.

Find out why the tantrum is happening

A child who greets every strange man she meets as ‘Dada!’ is unlikely to be able to articulate why she’s lying on the tiled floor of a shopping mall screaming at full volume. It’s possible by the time she’s got there, she’s forgotten. And even if the source of the tantrum is located it’s unlikely to make much sense to adults.

My son once brought Sainsbury’s to a standstill when I told him there wasn’t time to kiss every picture of every dog on every tin of dog food in Aisle 16. And when I had to pull over onto the hard shoulder of the M25 because I thought my daughter was suffering severe abdominal pain, it turned out she wanted her brother to stop blowing out the imaginary candles on her imaginary birthday cake.

It does help, however, to remember the tantrum may not make sense to you but it’s frightening for the child. She’s lost control and needs to get it back again.

Find a distraction

I’m not sure what distraction readily accessible in a suburban high street can stop a tantrum in its tracks. Traditional favourites – a fire engine, a big lorry, an amusing shop window display – can be random. It’s considered unwise to offer sweets as a placatory measure, not just because it’s not a good idea to reward poor behaviour with food, but because having a faceful of Smarties hurled back at you does nothing for your dignity.

Finding a distraction before the tantrum sets in is more useful, but you actually have to be listening in the first place.

“When they kick off, the difference between a toddler and the average human being becomes apparent in the same way the difference between a bursting balloon and a nuclear missile becomes apparent once the button has been pushed.”

Ignore it

Walking from a screaming child in public is easier said than done. Mine never let me get away. I’ve traipsed the length of Sainsbury’s (again…) with a small boy clinging to my ankles.

Ignoring the child at the end of toddler reins is equally difficult. My son would dangle limply from the harness or he’d mysteriously find a way to make himself extra heavy and I’d have to drag him along like a dead horse through wet sand.

Ignoring well-meaning advice from passers-by is just as crucial. “Slap his face,” one lady suggested eagerly, while others huffed at the inadequacy of my mothering skills. Once a public tantrum has started, you’re never going to get it right: either you or the child is going to come in for judgement. Ride it out. Take them somewhere quiet if you can. Don’t apologise too much. Try not to cry.

Don’t change your mind

About what? Having children? Too fucking late now love. Still, not changing tactic while the child is mid-tantrum is a good idea. Be calm with the bairn. Don’t go through the gamut of parental persuasive techniques from begging to bribery to threatening. And then years later when he’s 15 remember this when he says he doesn’t need to do any homework because he and his mate Jack are going to form a metalcore band and his GCSEs will simply be a distraction.

Perhaps the best advice to offer is not to frazzled parents, but to members of the public. And it’s this:

Be kind

If you’re a passer-by or a shop owner or a customer and a child is throwing themselves into a frenzy, be kind. The kid is – well – a kid. Tantrums are not a sign of bad parenting or an evil child.

The best thing that ever happened to me was when a woman came up to me (it was almost certainly in Sainsbury’s) and asked if she could hold my bags while I dealt with my little boy. Someone understanding that I wasn’t a shit mother made all the difference in the world.


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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com