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How to Deal with a Tantrum in a Restaurant (So You Can Go Back Without Feeling Embarrassed)

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Before I had kids, I would often see a kid throwing a fit at a restaurant or store, and mentally gasp, “That poor mom. Hope that never happens to me!” Yep, I actually thought there was an outside chance that I might be able to avoid the stress, frustration, and humiliation of a child’s public tantrum. As though it was something that happened to other people’s kids. Oh, what a silly, childless young thing I was. See, because now I have 3-year-old twin boys who are strong-willed and defiant, full of big emotions and clear demands. Most of the time, they’re very sweet, but when they lose their minds, oh, it’s not pretty.

A few weeks ago, I was with my boys at a pizza place when one twin suddenly got very upset that he was going to have to share the giant pizza with his brother. Apparently, he also didn’t want peppers on his pizza, although, yeah, I’m 98 percent positive he specifically asked for peppers. (If you have toddlers, you feel me.) Well, it escalated quickly and soon, a little upset turned into a full-blown — and very loud — tantrum. He was pushing the pizza away, crying and screaming. It was pretty brutal. 

Having never quite experienced a public explosion of this magnitude, I temporarily froze with panic. I could feel the disapproving glares from the old ladies at the next table, and the couple whose date we were clearly ruining. What was my plan? Come on, think, woman, think! Of course, my son’s ear-piercing shrieks snapped me right out of it, and my mama instincts kicked in. I sprang into action and ultimately, got him to settle down.

So, bet you’re wondering what magic tricks I used, right? Well, I’m about to tell you, because I believe all parents need to be armed and ready to handle a public meltdown. They happen to the best of us. Really, they happen to all of us. So, the next time your kid loses his ever-loving mind in the middle of a restaurant, try these tricks…

1. Show him you feel for him. Sure, your little often seems like a crazed lunatic, but he can still be reasoned with. First, he needs to calm down a little bit. Start by showing him a little compassion. Just like you, he wants to feel that he’s being heard. He wants his feelings to be validated. So, just because you know (and maybe he knows) that he asked for peppers on the pizza, and just because he should learn to share, doesn’t mean his feelings aren’t real. Let him know you understand why he’s so upset. It goes something like this, “I know, you really wanted your own pizza and Mommy’s asking you to share. It’s really hard to share sometimes. And, I’m sorry, Mommy thought you said you wanted peppers. Let me take them off because I know you don’t want them.” Fair warning: He might be too far gone to actually hear any of this, but it’s worth a shot.

 2. Pull out your bag of tricks. Any seasoned parent comes to a restaurant armed with kid-friendly activities, but those toys, books and games can especially come in handy in the middle of a meltdown. Keep on hand one surprise item, like a really glittery sticker book, that she’s never seen before. Then, when she’s losing it, ask if she wants to see the new stickers you got. Pull them out to show her, in case she can’t hear you through her screaming. If she doesn’t seem interested, get out a piece of paper and start decorating with them, kind of like, “See, doesn’t this look fun?” Then encourage her to help you with your picture, or to do her own.

 3. Offer ice cream, treats, toys, anything. Obviously, you don’t want to bribe your kid that often, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This might be the time to mention that, hey, if he eats a good lunch, maybe you can get ice cream. I mean, if your child is anything like mine, just the mere mention of ice cream gets his ears perked up, his eyes wide. Suddenly, I have their full attention. So, whatever your kid is motivated by, try mentioning it, loudly, over his cacophony of his wails. It just might snap him out of it.

4. Take him outside for a breather. Sometimes, the only way to end the tantrum is by changing the scenery. With my son, I ultimately had to take him outside, put him on my lap, and let him get it out. We all need a good cry sometimes, and so do our kids. It just doesn’t have to be in the middle of a restaurant, ruining everyone else’s meal. You can hold her, or just let her lie on the ground, face-down — you know, the preferred tantrum position. After a good, cathartic cry, she might be ready to go back in and eat her meal.

5. Get the hell out. Unfortunately though, there are times when your kid is just stuck on a loop he cannot break. If all of your efforts have failed, and even waiting outside hasn’t snapped him out of it, it’s time to just leave. Get the food wrapped up and go, as fast as your little legs will take you. You can apologize to those around you, as well as the wait staff and hostess, but really, they probably are ready for you to just leave anyway. 


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Photo: Getty