Love & Relationship

How to Manage a Toddler’s Challenging Behavior in Public


My two year old is going through a “phase”, you know the ones that all toddlers go through, that look a little like this…you want them to do one thing and they want to do another thing. Yes, you know where this story ends – with big emotions, a high dose of stress, and lots of tears (theirs and perhaps yours too). Any parent of a toddler has been here, whether it be a candy they want at the checkout, changing clothes, leaving somewhere they don’t want to leave, going somewhere they don’t want to go…the list goes on, there are endless opportunities to have “one of those moments”.

I guess what I’m pointing out is in my experience as a Clinical Psychologist, and a parent, if you have a toddler it’s pretty much inevitable you will experience one of these moments in public- the frequency and intensity varies, but it happens. Of course that moment where your toddler is crying or screaming, or usually both, refusing to leave, or stay, or do something- rarely occurs when you’re in the middle of a deserted beach rather it happens when there are what feels like hundreds of eyes on you – even if in reality it is only a few, the pressure feels immense.

So here are 6 things that may help:

  1. Remember you are an Amazing Parent

In this moment it’s easy to get caught in helpful patterns of thinking. Thoughts that this is somehow a reflection on your “poor parenting” – it is not. You have not done anything “wrong”, your toddler is just experiencing big emotions and this is a moment you can be there for them.

  1. Recognize this as an Opportunity for Connection

We can get so caught focussing on their behaviors as something that need to be managed, instead of interpreting our toddler’s cues for connection and need for validation. Your child is experiencing big emotions and they need your help to understand their feelings, and reassure them they are not alone.

  1. Take the Time to Co-regulate

Before you start to tackle “the problem” you need to help your toddler regulate. They are flooded with emotion and they need your support to co-regulate. So do what you need to do- sit on the floor beside them, give them a cuddle, pat their back, whatever your child finds soothing. And yes, I know right now you’re in the middle of a supermarket which brings me to my next point.

  1. Remember you are Not Alone

There is probably some other parent in eyesight trying to telepathically send you their support- even if you can’t see them. You are not alone – there is another parent having a similar moment in another checkout or another playground. I wish I could tell you people won’t judge you, but they may. The important thing to remember is that they do not understand the intensity of your child’s emotion or your child’s experience like you do.

  1. It’s OK to “give in”

Yes, of course consistency is important but parenting is not about making hard line rules that can never change. We make decisions in contexts. Let’s say you usually try and get home for dinner at a set time. It’s the first day back at school, there’s been some big emotions and your child wants to say longer at the playground today. You can see they’re having fun with familiar friends and this is meeting a need they have in this moment. Your saying yes doesn’t mean you have somehow ruined your perfect streak of parenting, you have just shifted your boundaries to meet their needs in that moment. You are teaching them it’s OK to respond to their needs as they change, and to take care of themselves in the way they need to.

  1. Be Kind to yourself

Parenting a toddler takes a lot of patience, a lot of regulating yourself as you help them regulate. Not to mention the same question 10 time a day and answering every why question you could ever imagine and many you can’t. Did I mention a lot of patience. It’s essential you take the time to take care of you so you can take care of them.  

If all else fails remember the moment will pass. As you navigate the toddler years try and also soak up the joyful moments. Watching them master a new skill, how proud they are to show you what they’ve created, and those precious moments as they fall asleep in you’re arms. As the challenging moments will pass so too will these little nuggets of joy.


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