Parents, Who’s in Control? You or Your Toddler?

There’s nothing quite like a screaming toddler having a tantrum in the supermarket aisle.

The screams reverberate around the cereal boxes and toiletry items and assail your ears like a deranged cockatoo.

“Oh no!” you say. “Not today.”

Cursing your luck, you push your trolley a little bit quicker down the aisle, avoiding the pasta and canned tomatoes and hoping to avoid the massacre that’s happening in the fruit and veg section.

Then you steer the trolley around the corner and into the next aisle, only to realise you’ve made a grave mistake. The toddler you’ve attempted to avoid is lying on his back in the middle of the aisle, shaking his head from side to side, thumping his arms and legs onto the floor and screaming at the top of his voice.


His crimson face is sheened with tears and his mother (or father) is staring down at him with resignation and disbelief. The shame is not too far away.

Worse, the mother simply doesn’t know what to do. So she just stands there and stares at this mini-monster that up until moments ago was such an angel.

This sudden transformation has taken her by such a surprise, she is shell-shocked. She doesn’t move. She’s afraid that if she rebukes the child, the situation will magnify. Compounding matters, she’s afraid that someone has already called the social worker.

You, yourself, don’t know what to do. Not that any of the other customers are any help. They’ve already darted to the self-service area and started scanning their items into their reusable shopping bags faster than the most experienced Aldi checkout operator. 

Which leaves only you.

You’re the only one remaining in the supermarket by this point. Even the staff have taken an emergency tea break, all at the same time.

There’s only you, the mother, and the screaming blur of arms and legs in the middle of the aisle.

So what do you do?

Are you, in fact, obliged to do anything?

Do you even have a right to intrude into this situation?

Probably the most pertinent question is: Do you really want to get involved?

You probably don’t. Just like the other customers who have already vacated the premises with their half-completed shopping list and the staff who’ve suddenly gone AWOL.

It’s in these moments that I’m reminded of the adage:

“It takes a village to raise a child.”

Ultimately, of course, it’s the parents who have the major responsibility to raise their children. Next in line is close family: grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins. 

The rest of society, however minor, still has responsibility too and an important role in raising children in their immediate society to be good citizens—the government, neighbours, teachers, doctors, sports coaches, anyone in fact who comes into contact with that child.

Which includes you, standing with your mouth ajar in the supermarket aisle thinking, “How the heck did I get into this situation?”

So, then, it comes down to two choices: do something to help, or do nothing and walk away.

If you decide to walk away, that’s fine. There’s no judgement here. In fact, I believe most people walk away from situations like the one I’ve described is because: a) they’re worried about getting a negative or violent reaction from the parent of the screaming toddler, or b) they don’t know how to help.

So, let’s answer these two concerns.

If you’re concerned about a negative or violent reaction from the parent of the screaming child, my advice is to assess the situation before taking any action to help or to walk away. 

If you feel you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation by offering to help, then don’t offer that help. The first rule of first attenders to minimise risk is ‘Be safe’. And sometimes it does feel that you’re a paramedic or nurse or doctor attending a crash scene, doesn’t it?

But if you feel you can offer help, and it’s safe to do so, then the question becomes, “How can I help?”

And that, in fact, is all you need to say to that poor stricken mother or father: “Hi, how can I help?”

Most of the time you’ll get a reply, “Thanks, but it’s okay. He’ll get over it in a minute.”

Sometimes you’ll get a reply along the lines of, “Thanks, would you mind pushing my trolley to the checkout while I pick up my kid.”

The simple act of asking how you can help has several positive effects: a) it wakes the mother/father from the mesmerising spell they’ve fallen into during this moment; b) it deflates the atmosphere of tension that happens during tantrums; and c) it enables the mother/father to do the best thing they can in tantrum situations—remove the child from the cause of the tantrum.

As any child psychologist will advise you, the best way to defuse a tantrum is not to berate the child or tell them to stop, but to physically move them to another area away from the cause of the tantrum.

Now, this is difficult if the child is thrashing their arms and legs, or deliberately flopping to the floor when you try to pick them up. 

Nonetheless, removing the child from the situation that triggered the tantrum is the best and quickest way to dampen their anger and frustration and give you (and other customers and staff) some peace with which you can continue your shopping.

Until, of course, they have another tantrum.

But that’s another story.

About the author

Dr. Scott Zarcinas

Dr. Scott Zarcinas (aka DoctorZed) is a doctor, author, and transformologist. He is the father of two wonderful teenagers, and for a day job he helps pro-active people to be happier, more confident, decisive, and effective so they can activate their fullest potential and become the person they are capable of being. He specialises in helping work-at-home fathers build their self-esteem and self-belief so they have the confidence and the courage to live a life that is true to themself. DoctorZed gives regular workshops, seminars, presentations, and courses to support those who want to make a positive difference through positive action.

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5 rounds of

  • 5 inch worms
  • 10 push ups
  • 10 squats
  • 30s – 1min plank
  • 30s – 1min bridge