How Parents Can Better Handle Meltdowns or Tantrums in Public

A frazzled mother picks up her screaming squirming three year old daughter from the shopping center floor, trying to juggle her shopping and child as she negotiates the pram and six month old baby inside with her other hand, desperately hoping the shopping does not fall out of the basket underneath. Shopper after shopper steps aside glaring the unspoken recriminations evident on their faces, “Why doesn’t she make the naughty child stop screaming!”

• Don’t you think she would if she could?
• Don’t you think she wants an enormous hole to open in the floor for her to hide in?
• Don’t you think she would appreciate just one kind word right now?
• Don’t you think she is doing her best?

This was not the first time, and certainly was not the last time I had to fight with my three-year-old daughter, but what happened this time was life changing!

The silent tears slowly started to stream down my face as out of the middle of all these accusing faces steps an older lady. She says, “Sweetheart, this is not a tantrum. She is having a meltdown. She needs you to stop now and hold her. Not run from the looks being thrown your way.” She pointed me to a seat a metre away helped me sit holding my pram like a lifeline. What now? I knew my daughter was far too heavy for me to carry much further and still with the screaming. This lady I did not know took the small blanket from the top of the trolley and covered my shoulder and my daughter’s head. Almost instantly her screaming stopped. Just like that! I was totally stunned! This stranger had quietly solved all my dramas. I looked up at her and she quietly whispered, “She feels safe now! Go home and look up meltdown!” Then before I could even say thank you she walked away, disappeared into the midst of the shoppers now oblivious to my turmoil.

After we bought a drink and a barbecue chicken on the way out the door, because after that performance I was too shaken to contemplate food for my family, we made our way home.

After dinner and both children were asleep for the night, I made my way to the computer to investigate. Thinking back to this word “Meltdown” and wondering what the lady could possibly have meant.

How exactly does “meltdown” relate to my daughter’s massive tantrum, for goodness sake? Only, this lady knew how to handle her! She had obviously been there before!

The first thing to pop up on “Meltdown” read something like:

“I know you don’t know me but I know you! I have been you! Stop running because there is nowhere to run! Stop panicking because she feeds from your fear you cannot help her! She eventually stops screaming and struggling when you hug her because she feels her safe zone is now intact! Hugging her calms you so her body responds to the calm before her mind can relate!”

What does that have to do with calming a tantrum?

The next entry was from and was titled, “The difference between a meltdown and a tantrum”. (Reference to the full article is below). Now things began to make sense.

A tantrum is a child trying to have their way by showing their displeasure, whilst a meltdown is becoming so overwhelmed by their surroundings they can no longer cope. The child’s “fight of flight” response triggered from panic and they lose their ability to focus or think. Tightly hugging them therefore helps them instill calm in their body.

Knowing this makes my days so much easier to negotiate. Awareness that when anxiety triggers it can be irrational and we need to talk, negotiate a pathway back to our child feeling safe. Remember to be understanding as our child feels overwhelmed, and is acting out because they have no words to explain their feelings.

I hope that all before we are again sitting on a bench in the middle of the shopping centre, with a small blanket tossed over her head, squeezing her tight to remind her we will make a barrier together between her and the outside world. We will be her safe zone until she is ready to partake in the world, until she is ready to reset again and explore by herself!

The next time you watch a parent trying desperately hard to carry a screaming child to the parent’s room or outside the noisy shopping center, please:

Spare them a smile or a nod of encouragement! An offer of assistance would be welcome even if they do not know how to accept you help!

Already they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders for not knowing how to help their small child. Please do not compound their distress with your recriminations. I promise you they are already doing their very best!

Useful articles and resources I find very helpful:

Morin, Amanda. “The difference between a meltdown and a tantrum” , Sensory Processing Issues

Raising Lifelong Learners – Kessler, Colleen. “Helping your child cope with Anxiety”


On a search for new ideas, I found this today.
Not the Former Things – Wingert, Shawna. “Before you Judge a Special Needs Parent”

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