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How do I calm my tantrum-prone toddler in public?

The question: My four-year-old seems well adjusted at home, but sometimes out in public, she has a total meltdown – screaming, crying. What can I do to at least calm her down enough to get her home?

The answer: Infant meltdowns in public are often a parent's worst nightmare. Not only are you away from the comfort and security of home, but now your parenting skills are on display for all to see. Your child has you over a barrel and knows it.

Rest assured, these episodes happen to every parent at one time or another. If your child has a temperament that makes him or her prone to tantrums, your best bet is to avoid taking your child on public excursions whenever possible. Some kids just aren't ready to handle all the stimulation. Stores and malls are particularly challenging as they are surrounded by enticing sights, sounds and smells. They want to touch and experience all that is around them, only to be told "no" by their parent. To make matters worse, stores often have products marketed to children right at your child's eye level.

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Try bringing a favourite game or snack to distract your child and keep the shopping trip as short as possible. If he or she does have a meltdown, I recommend leaving immediately with your child. Yes, this often means leaving your grocery cart in the aisle and heading for the car. Threatening or pleading with your child at this point is almost never successful and can lead to more episodes in the future. Take a few moments in the parking lot to let everyone's nerves settle before heading for home. As your child gets older, these meltdowns will become less frequent and less severe, and before you know it, family outings will be a fun and enjoyable experience for all.

Send pediatrician Michael Dickinson your questions at He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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