If you're a parent, you have most likely witnessed a temper tantrum or two or three ... or 30.
They happen when kids are tired.
They happen when they are hungry.
They happen when they want something they can't have.
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And they happen ... well, sometimes we don't even know why they happen.
It's not always easy to know how to react to the drama, all that screaming and crying, and foot-stomping and body-slamming on the floor. Do we bribe them? Do we yell at them? Do we put them in timeout?
Needless to say, it can be very stressful -- especially when your child has a meltdown in a public setting. Strangers watch to see how you react. Some shake their heads. Some glare. Some even offer unsolicited advice.
Those who have not been there are often less understanding. Yes, it's annoying when you're at church and the kid behind you is throwing a fit because he wants candy in the middle of the service. But if you've ever been in the shoes of a parent who is trying to calm a child, then you know that a little slack is due.
Local mom Molly Day recently encountered one of those "dirty look" moments.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Sophie Svalina, threw a tantrum while the family waited for dinner at Jersey Mike's in Bluffton. The people at the next table gave Day a look as if to say, "Aren't you going to do something about this?"
But Day said she was already doing something about it. She was ignoring the behavior in the hopes her daughter would stop.
That's exactly what Palmetto Pediatrics of the Lowcountry pediatrician Dr. Lance Lowe said parents should do. The biggest problem with tantrums is the way parents respond to them, and the key to preventing or stopping tantrums is to take away that response.
"The response to a temper tantrum often actually reinforces the behavior," he said. "For example, the toddler throws a tantrum and Mom brings toys or (says) 'I'm going to give you juice. I'll give you a snack. I'll give you pretty much anything to make you stop.' You're actually giving rewards for the behavior. So it actually often amplifies or perpetuates bad behavior."
Lowe suggests just turning around and walking away. If that doesn't work, try to quickly redirect the child's attention or change the environment. He said it's good to keep a quiet voice while doing this so you don't overwhelm the child. He might even mimic your behavior.
"If that doesn't work, think about the behavior as an act, and the child as an actress," Lowe said. "You take away the audience; there's no more acting."
When you can't walk away from your child -- for instance, when you are in a store -- the best thing to do is remove the child from the situation.
A father of four, Lowe has left the cart in the aisle of the grocery store many times. When the Lowe children throw a tantrum in public, they get a timeout in the vehicle -- one minute for every year they have been alive.
"I've left many meals to take a child outside," he said.
If ignoring Sophie or trying to distract her doesn't work, her mother will sometimes put her in a timeout or try to talk her out of the tantrum. Day said those techniques usually don't work. Sometimes getting down on Sophie's level and giving her a hug does help. Making her laugh works at times, too.
"It's frustrating because I can't figure out what to do," Day said. "I want it to be a teaching moment, but she's just whining and crying and yelling, and it's hard to get through to her. ... I'm confused as to what to do and sometimes why she's throwing a tantrum."
Lowe said children often begin throwing tantrums around 15-18 months of age. There is no reasoning with a toddler having a tantrum. They don't actually think about what they're doing. At this age, they're starting to develop autonomy and realize their behaviors influence the outside world. But every child is different. Lowe's first child started throwing tantrums around age 6.
And when they start, he said, they learn very quickly. That is where the parents have to come in.
Day said Sophie doesn't have tantrums at school, only with her parents. She also said Sophie's more likely to throw tantrums when she's hungry or tired.
Hilton Head Island mom Janet Williams agrees with Day -- hunger and fatigue are often triggers. She said when she is preoccupied or upset about something, her kids are also more likely to throw tantrums.
"The grocery store and church have been memorable locations for our meltdowns," Williams said.
A few weeks ago, Williams' 3-year-old daughter waited until the pastor started his sermon to start asking for juice, something her mother does not bring to church.
Williams said she told her daughter no, but that didn't work. Then she told her she could have juice after church if she would quiet down.
Her daughter began to chant, "juice, juice, juice."
"In my mind, she was shouting," Williams said. "In retrospect, it was a forceful whisper. I finally overreacted and suggested (just as forcefully) that we might never have juice again if we didn't quiet down."
In the midst of a stressful situation, like trying to get a child to hush, sometimes parents forget what has worked in the past.
"I finally remembered to ignore it, and that did work."
Diana Graves of Lady's Island said she, her husband and their two younger kids were at the grocery store one day when disaster struck.
At this store, they had shopping carts with play cars in front of the basket so children can pretend to drive. They even have two steering wheels and two seat belts.
"Should be great when you have two kids, right?" Graves said.
Before the kids even got in the cart, Graves said her husband darted off to get the shopping started.
Samantha, who was 4 at the time, got in one side, and Hunter, who was 2, followed her, trying to get in on the same side.
Samantha screamed at her brother while Graves tried to pull him away to put him in the other side. Then Hunter started screaming and pulled Samantha's hair. She reacted by screaming and punching him in the face.
"By this time, I'm threatening to take them home because they are fighting, while I'm looking around for my husband to help me, and he is nowhere to be found," Graves said. "The fighting started up again, but this time, biting was involved."
Graves took Hunter out of the cart. As she tried to pull her daughter out, she fought and screamed with every ounce of her energy.
"Not just a sad little cry either," Graves said. "This is the ear-piercing, someone-is-trying-to-kill-me scream."
She finally got Samantha out of the cart and took the kids back to the car.
"We sat in silence until Bobby finally comes out with a cart full of groceries and says, 'Why didn't you come in?' If looks could kill, he would have been dead. I know the people going in the store saw me struggling with them, and they are probably glad I didn't make it in."
Lowe admits that tantrums are much easier to handle at home. But he said if you're making dinner and can't walk away from the stove, move the child elsewhere. Separate the child from the situation.
"The biggest problem is parents tend to reward the behavior," he said. "If you reward them once, it's just reinforcing."
Another thing Lowe said is essential is consistency. He also said parents should never say anything more than three times. Say it once, for example, "Don't do that." If the child repeats the offending behavior, say, "If you do it again, there will be a timeout." If the child does the behavior a third time, he goes straight to timeout.
If children are having an unusually difficult time with tantrums, there is a type of psychological treatment called Parent-Child Interaction Therapy that is now being offered at the Medical University of South Carolina. The idea of the treatment is to improve the parent-child relationship and change the way the two interact.
So, how do you tell the difference between normal temper tantrums and more serious behavioral problems?
Lowe said to pay attention to the frequency of the tantrums and the circumstances surrounding them. If they are happening all the time and they are consistent, that's a red flag for a behavioral problem. If your child is always fighting with other children, that's another red flag.
"If you think about discipline, discipline is a Latin word that comes from the word 'disciple,' which is teacher. What we're trying to do is teach behavior to our kids. The biggest problem with tantrums is the child is usually teaching us.
"You have to reverse that role."
Follow Amy Coyne Bredeson at twitter.com/IPBG_Amy.