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Coping with tantrums

Parents should not overreact, experts say

Rebecca Jacobs was amazed at how quiet and involved her rambunctious 2 1/2-year-old son was with the new puzzle in the children's room at the library.

Until it was time to go home.

Tyler threw himself on the floor, yelling: "No, mama, I don't want to leave!"

Jacobs, 7 1/2 months pregnant, can't exactly scoop up her son and hustle out the door that easily.

"It literally took me 10 minutes to get out to the car," says the mom from West Bloomfield Township, Mich. "It was really embarrassing.

There were two guys having an intellectual conversation. Here I am with my child kicking and screaming."

Parents, you've all been there.

So what do you do when your child throws that all-out temper tantrum, especially if you're in public?

First, don't panic, says Dr. Paul Donahue, a child psychologist and author of the recently released "Parenting Without Fear" (St. Martins, 2007).

Try to let the child cry it out, he says — unless, of course, he could hurt himself or others, in which case intervene.

"Tantrums in public can be some of the most difficult moments for parents. You think all eyes are on you," says Donahue, whose practice is in Scarsdale, N.Y. "Leaving kids be for a few minutes until they come out of it, and not giving in to whatever they're asking for — it's often much tougher to do that."

Donahue notes that other parents who observe your child's tantrum likely will empathize with you.

"The library, where it's supposed to be a place of quiet, it's OK. Parents have got to remember that it's not going to be the first time that it ever happened there, or in preschool, or in a restaurant," Donahue says.

In a synagogue or church, though, sticking to your guns can be even tougher.

Just ask Amy Goldstein, who took her 4-year-old daughter, Molly, to a Friday night service at their synagogue in Houston recently. All Molly wanted to do was run around outside and play with her friends, but Goldstein insisted that she stay until the singing was over.

That didn't go over so well.

"She was hysterical," says Goldstein, 41. "The entire congregation turned around to look at me. ... She saw it or sensed it, so she got louder, screaming, 'No, Mommy, no!' So I walked out with her, since now I seemed to be the worst mother in the world, torturing my child, but I also wanted to dig my feet in."

Molly eventually calmed down, and Goldstein took her back in to the service, where the rabbi stopped speaking for just a moment.

"Let me tell you, I was mightily embarrassed," Goldstein says. "But in the end, she enjoyed it."

Donahue says tantrums are a good thing — even if they don't feel that way. They are an important part of emotional development, and teach children to deal with frustration and disappointment.

"It's important that parents feel they don't have to jump in too soon to soothe kids. They have to let them sit with those very uncomfortable feelings, even if it's painful to do so," Donahue said. "A lot of parents come to me, afraid their child will be scarred for life. It's highly unlikely a tantrum will do any lasting damage."

Charmaine Stevens, a mother of three in Canton, Mich., does whatever she can to distract her youngest, Samantha, if she starts to melt down in public. Often she takes the 2 1/2-year-old to the bathroom, where the change in environment sometimes is enough to calm her down.

"She is the biggest temper tantrum queen there is," Stevens says. "Sometimes all you can do is let her cry it out. Our doctor said to hold her, don't look at her, and let her go through it."

If Samantha acts up in church, however, Stevens or her husband will get her out of there as quickly as possible.

"I've seen others in church let their kids fall down and have it out, but in that particular situation, I couldn't do it," says Stevens, 43. "That's not my style."

Donahue agrees there are times when all bets are off, and you do what you can to stop the tantrum. But he warns that giving in too often can encourage more tantrums.

Jay Hoecker, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., suggests trying to head off temper tantrums before they start. If you're going to the grocery store at a time when your child might get hungry, take along a snack. If you're heading to the toy store to buy a present for someone else, make a deal ahead of time on what small toy your child can have.

And if the tantrum comes anyway, have a plan. Hoecker suggests on the Web site trying a "marked" time-out. Because it's hard to give a time-out in a store, instead put a mark on the back of your child's hand and say you'll talk about it when you get home. When you get home, discuss the mark, why you gave it, and have the child sit in a time-out then.

Donahue says parents need to remember that tantrums are how young children express frustration.

"They need to learn how to cope. They're not going to get everything they want. They need to learn how to delay gratification," Donahue says. "Children need to learn that at 2, 3, 4 years old. If they don't learn it then, it will be much harder at 10, 12, 15 years old."