My 3 year old’s tantrums are embarrassing

Upset ToddlerQUESTION
My three-year-old son can have these big meltdowns and the slightest thing can spark him off. I can just about manage them at home, but they are really difficult when we are out. He has now had a few when I collect him from preschool.

One time he lay on the ground and would not get up. When I got him into the car, he would not put on his seatbelt and started hitting me when I tried to put it on him. He is very strong so it is hard to force him to do anything. What can I do? He has to have the seat belt on before driving and we were in a rush to get home.I tried everything to get him to calm down.

He doesn’t at all respond to punishments or consequences. When I threatened to take away his toys at home when he was throwing a tantrum, he did not seem to care and just shouted more.

I got very upset at his last meltdown outside the preschool and I was very embarrassed. What should I do?

Dealing with preschoolers throwing tantrums can be very stressful. Unlike babies and toddlers, they are big and strong and their tantrums can be full of emotion and rage. Yet unlike older children, preschoolers are harder to reason with and consequences and other discipline options don’t work as well.

Dealing with public tantrums brings a whole extra degree of difficulty when you are out in an environment you can’t control and you often have the attention of an audience. The latter can also make the tantrum worse.

Tantrums and preschoolers
At their developmental stage, it is normal for preschoolers to throw lots of tantrums and to have meltdowns of high emotion. Sometimes there is a particular reason for the tantrum that you can address such as picking them up if they fall. However, most of the time you can’t address what is upsetting them and frequently what they want is unreasonable or impossible – eg, they don’t like the colour of the car or the fact it is raining!

In those situations, there is no magic formula for stopping the tantrum and instead the goal is to get through it in a gentle, supportive way. Over time you want to respond in a way that teaches your child how to manage his frustration and emotions.

Calm plans
In dealing with a public tantrum, it helps if you think through a step-by-step plan of action that provides you with options to respond calmly no matter what your child does. Let’s take the example of your son throwing a tantrum and refusing to put on his seatbelt. In that instance, you could force the issue.

Sometimes you have to do this, such as if you need to leave a location or if they are in danger. At these times, you may need to physically pick up the child.
However, frequently the best response is to take a pause for a minute and do something else, perhaps turn on the car music or talk about something. Do this before returning to try again. Then you might distract him with something and click in the belt before he notices.

The main tactics that you can use with a preschooler in the full flow of a tantrum are soothing their emotions – “Come on, let’s calm down now”. You can even offer a hug or distraction, such as seeing what’s on the radio with them or giving them a book.

Otherwise you can try to ignore them for a minute to give them some space to settle. All these tactics are best employed between gentle pauses as you give your son time to calm down.

At their developmental stage, consequences only have limited use with preschoolers. For example, if you say he is going to lose a toy when he goes home, this is too far away in time to have an immediate effect.

Consequences can work for this age group if you phrase them positively and simply in the form of a “when then instruction”. This works like this: “When you calm down, then you can listen to music in the car”, or: “When the seat belt is on, then you have your toy to hold. When we get home, then we can have nice play time/ eat our favourite lunch.”

If the tantrums are frequent it is also important to think through in advance as to how they can be prevented in the first place. For example, is there a particular reason that he is in bad form after school. Perhaps he is tired or hungry which you could alleviate by giving him an immediate healthy snack or placing him in the buggy to rest with his favourite toy.

In addition, there may be ways you can motivate him to behave positively in flashpoint situations. If he is resisting the seatbelt, perhaps you could take time to teach him clicking in the belt and making the sound. Do this at a different time from preschool pick-up when he is relaxed. Or show him how to click his bear or doll in the seat.

You could also do up a special star chart with him which shows pictures of him clicked in his seat whereby he gets a star each time it is done on the way home from school or on other trips. A simple reward chart like this can take the conflict out of a situation and be a booster to starting a new positive behaviour.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents visit