Tantrum in the Grocery Store! What Can I Do?
April 25, 2022

Kaori Nepo, PhD, BCBA-D

Parents often have to deal with challenging behaviors from their children in public (like in the situation below). What can a parent do to avoid or reduce a dreaded tantrum?

Let’s take a look at a common grocery store encounter between a mother and her child and consider potential solutions to change the outcome:

Susan, the mother, is at a grocery store with her 3 years old son, Jon, walking by the candy isle.

Jon: “Mom, I want a candy bar.”

Susan: “Not today. We have a snack at home.”

Jon: “But I want this one.” Jon starts to get louder.

Susan: “You can have a snack when we get home.” Susan replies.

Jon: “But I want a snack now.” Jon yells.

Susan: “We need to finish shopping and we can go.” Susan guides Jon to walk away from the candy isle.

Jon: “I WANT THIS NOW.” Jon screams at the top of his lung and drops on the floor. Several customers at the store turn around and watch Susan and Jon who is now on the floor.

Susan: “Jon, we need to go home so you need to stand up.” Susan puts her hand out to get Jon up. Jon pushes Susan’s hand away and continues to scream.

Jon: “I WANT THIS NOW.” Jon yells louder. Susan feels everyone is watching her, waiting for what she will do next.

Susan: “OK. Just one.” Jon immediately stops yelling and gets up and grabs the candy bar he wants.

Sounds familiar? All parents have experienced something like this situation at some point in raising children. However, some children stop, and others continue to behavior this way. Why? Let’s look through the behavior analytic lens.

First, it is important to identify the possible function(s) of Jon’s behavior. All behaviors have functions (or reasons) and there are two possible functions: accessing something or getting out of something. In this case, Jon wanted to get a candy bar. By crying, yelling, and dropping on the floor, Jon got the candy bar. So, what might happen when he goes back to the grocery store again? He will probably behave in a similar way so he can get what he wants due to previous experience.

Now let’s look at Susan’s behavior. She wanted Jon to stop yelling, crying, and laying on the floor so she gave Jon the candy bar. She was able to stop these behaviors in the moment by giving him what he wanted. In the long run, however, she will more likely experience a similar situation since he got the candy bar by behaving such way. There are always reason(s) for our behavior even though we might not be able to specify reasons. In the case of Susan and Jon, it is clear what they are getting or getting out of it. What happened after their behavior could make the situation worse in the future, thus we need to consider how we should handle the situation better.

What could Susan have done? First, Susan could have avoided taking Jon when he did not eat for a while. Have you experienced buying extra stuff at the grocery store when you are hungry? If Jon just ate a full meal or snack prior to going to the grocery store, he would be less likely to ask for more food. Second, Susan could have prepared Jon for what they were going to do at the store (e.g., getting particular items), thus the expectation would have been clear. Third, Susan could have packed alternative snacks that Jon could have had instead of the candy bar. She could have also provided him with small toys to play with while they were shopping.

Preparing for alternative activities or items are great ways to keep children entertained when you need to accomplish tasks. Having children help with your task is another way to keep them engaged and prevent unwanted behaviors. Susan could have prepared a shopping list and had Jon help finding items. He could have checked off the list after locating these items. Of course, it would be important for Susan to provide praise to him for doing that.

So, the next time you are facing challenging situations with your child, consider the function (or reasons) of your child’s behavior (and your behavior). Remember! There are always reasons for behaviors and changing how you prepare and address a situation will make the future behavior better.

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