A client recently asked how she could avoid her kids having meltdowns at the supermarket.
PLAN WHEN TO SHOP
1. Try to plan your shopping for a time of day when you don’t have your kids with you. (Maybe you can trade babysitting with a neighbor and watch her kids one day while she shops, so that you can leave your kids with her the next day while you shop.)
2. If you must shop with your kids, try to shop at a time of day when they are most likely to handle it well because they are rested, fed and ideally have had some unstructured play time.
SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS IN ADVANCE
3. If there is no “ideal” time in your family and you have no option but to take your kids with you, it is KEY that before going to the supermarket, you set expectations.
Here’s what I did those days I went pick my child up from after school care, know we were going to have to go to the store. (Note: By five, most children will be a lot less likely to tantrum than when they were younger, but some kids take longer to learn to regulate their emotions, so while tantrums are tapering off, don’t worry too much if your child is still having them at five.)
• I would start by pulling her aside at childcare into some quiet corner. I would get her on my lap and hold her until I had her attention. Sometimes, this meant a tantrum right there at childcare. It was a break from her routine. I was springing on her that her evening routine was going to be altered. She wouldn't get her playtime with mommy before dinner. Sometimes just holding her on my lap and not letting her run around the center would set her off crying. That was okay with me. Remember, even on a good day a child is more likely to cry between 5:00 and 6:00 o'clock than any other time. It's as if all the emotional stresses of the day have built up in children by then and they are just looking for an excuse to cry them out. Frankly, if my daughter was going to have a meltdown, I would rather that she have it at the center where we could sit on a beanbag in the corner than that she have it in the middle of the cereal aisle. Yes, a tantrum takes time. You cannot hurry it along, and I admit that while I was sitting there letting her wail it out, I was mentally revising my shopping list down to the bare essentials I could get away with without making tomorrow a hard day, too. On a happier note, the miracle of a good cry is that it really is like letting the storm wash through with its thunder and lighting. At the end of it, my daughter's tension would be spent and almost without exception she would be ready to calmly go to the store.
Although it might seem counter intuitive, the last minute trips to the store when she hadn't had a chance to cry were by far the trickier ones, the ones that required every bit of patience and creativity on my part to move us along without upset.
•On the way to the store, I would use the time in the car to set the expectations for what would happen once we got to the store: I would explain, we were only getting a few things (could she hold the list for me?); we weren't getting anything that wasn't on the list (that meant no requests for raspberries, dinosaur pasta or "special treat" cereal); but we were getting apples (did she want red or green?). I would acknowledge that she didn’t want to go to the store and ask her what might make going to the store easier? Did she want to walk or sit in the cart? Would she keep her bottom down? Otherwise she was going to be walking. How could she help Mommy? Could she count the apples? Sort the food by whether or not it went in the fridge or the cupboard? Hold the reusable grocery bags and hand them to the bagger? My main aim here in addition to letting her know what kind of behavior would be expected was to make her feel needed and included. Instead of my dragging her to the store because I had no choice, I would pose it as how lovely it was that she was there to assist me.
MAKE THE TRIP FUN
4. Once at the store, be all about cheerful confidence that the trip was going to be quick and fun. Often, I would turn it into a song and we would skip through the parking lot (Yes, I skipped in public. If it made a five o'clock shopping trip go off without a hitch, dignity be damned). We would sing: We're going to the store/We're going to the store/Hi Ho the Merry-o,/We're going to the store. If it was working, we'd add more verses (We'll buy the apples first/We'll buy the apples first/Hi Ho the Merry-o/We'll buy the apples first). As we were singing, we wouldn't have to stop to have conversation about whether she would walk or she would sit because we had already worked that out in the car. If she did decide to resist, I wouldn't let her change her mind because I knew that if I gave in on that first agreement, all I was doing was putting off the inevitable battle for later inside the store. Instead, I would get down to eye level, hold her hands or stroke her arms and gently remind her of her agreement. Sometimes that brought on a crying jag right there outside the store [Let me offer up a small prayer of thanks here that I was parenting in California. The weather was rarely so bad that we couldn't take the time to have the tantrum outside the store. If it had been, I suppose I would have had to go back to the car and let her do her crying there.]
STICK TO THE PLAN
5. Stick to the plan. You know as well as I do that a grocery store is specifically designed as a land mine that a parent must negotiate through. Yes, the store does deliberately place toys and yummy snacks right where a child is most likely to see them. That's why I would use the shopping list plus empathy. My daughter would cry out in great need for something--bubbles, maybe--and I would say, "Aw, too bad it is not on the list!" And then as I pushed by the bubbles, I might add in my most energized voice, "I love bubbles! They're so much fun!! I like the way they shimmer with different colors!! Don't you think bubbles are just the prettiest?" At this point, on a good day, my daughter would get excited just talking about bubbles. By the time she got back to wanting to buy them, we would be aisles away and looking for the next item on the list. On a bad day, this might be where the tears finally appeared. Remember, some days there are just tears that need to fall. A child has been keeping it together all day at school, but now that she is with you, her parent, she can safely fall apart secure in the knowledge that you won't abandon her. At this point, you have to make a decision. It might be possible to keep offering sympathy while at the same time going down your shopping list: "Aw, Sweetie. I know you really wanted those bubbles, You really like them and really wish you could get some. I know that's hard, Pumpkin. I wish I could make it easier for you." For my own part, if the crying was at a reasonable decibel and I didn't think I was making the other patrons suffer too badly, I would push through my list, continuing to murmur comforting sounds, taking her hand if she would let me. If it was really bad, I would ask the clerk at the front of the store to watch my cart and head outside until she finished crying. Once she was done--and that could be a while--we would head back in and finish. As much as it might have helped me get through the shopping list without a tantrum, I made sure not to give in to the bubbles or whatever it was she wanted.
KNOW THAT THIS STAGE WILL PASS!
6. When all else fails at the end of the day, know that this is just a developmental stage your child is going through. With each passing month, she will be better able to handle herself and will be more and more able to help you. Soon you will have your kids so well trained that you will wait until your kids are with you to shop. While you work your way through the vegetables, they will be your gophers running to pick up more butter and some milk. They will know which bread, cereal and crackers your family favors. They’ll be so helpful, the days of tantrums in the store will seem a distant memory.
Where are you getting snagged by your kids?
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