10 Tips for Handling Tantrums on Vacation

Image Gallery: Parenting An otherwise fun family vacation can be unsettled by a sudden tantrum. See more parenting pictures.

Even the most seasoned jetsetters can shudder at the thought of travelling with a toddler -- on the cramped airplane, waiting for luggage, waiting to check in, during the 30-minute stop for mommy and daddy to check out the museum on the way to six hours at Disneyland.

Any situation involving confinement, limited food options, strange schedules or the slightest hint of waiting can trigger a screaming, foot-stamping fit in an otherwise delightful child. But it's not a comment on parenting ability. Sure, if your 8-year-old is throwing tantrums, you may have a problem; if your 2-year-old is throwing tantrums, you may have a 2-year-old.

Vacationing with kids can be real fun, but it can also be really trying. Here are 10 ways to head off, deal with and recover from the inevitable vacation tantrum.

Up first, an ounce of prevention…

Ounce of Prevention: Anticipate

It doesn't have to be like this. A little prevention can help avoid some tantrums.
It doesn't have to be like this. A little prevention can help avoid some tantrums.
Thinkstock/Hemera

Between the ages of 1 and 4, children have a tendency to completely lose it when they don't get their way, especially if they're tired, hungry or bored when they're denied their greatest desire.

It's no secret: Children need. They need particular foods at particular times, certain amounts of sleep at certain times, and time and space to release all that pent-up toddler energy. Vacation schedules aren't always conducive to meeting a young child's unique requirements. Since a hungry, exhausted or wired kid is far more likely to start shrieking in the hotel lobby, one of the best ways to prevent a vacation fit is to anticipate your children's needs and wants in order to keep them physically content.

It'll take some extra time and may require a trip to a nearby store to fill out your arsenal, but it's worth it. You'll probably want to have on hand as many of your child's favorite snacks and toys as you can carry, as well as a full supply of water, milk or formula. Build in preset nap and activity times when at all possible. (An eight-hour day trip to a volcano may not be the greatest idea with a 3-year-old.)

Up next: A little control can go a long way.

Ounce of Prevention: Offer Choices

Toddlers' needs aren't limited to food and sleep. This developmental phase includes the need to have some control over their own lives (complete lack of judgment notwithstanding). Consistently dragging your kid along on a predetermined route can set up a tantrum powder keg. Offering some simple choices, on the other hand, can release the have-to-do-it tension and reduce tantrum potential.

You can't exactly let a 4-year-old decide between renting a car and taking cabs, but there are lots of smaller decisions you can leave to a toddler. Which restaurant you go to for lunch, for instance, is a pretty benign determination. You can also offer choices between the Children's Museum and the zoo, which order you do activities in, the pool or the beach, an ice cream shop or candy store.

This can also include a preventive bribe with choice of pay-off. As long as you determine the terms and offer the bribe before the tantrum happens (as in, "Sit quietly during lunch and we'll get a treat afterwards!" or, "Think about whether you want a lollipop or a scoop of ice cream!"), you're still in charge. Any choice can give a child a sense of control and reduce the risk of a "You're not the boss of me" freak-out.

Up next: When the freak-out does occur, remember whom you're dealing with.

During: Don't Reason

Don't bother reasoning. You'll just make yourself as mad as she is.
Don't bother reasoning. You'll just make yourself as mad as she is.
Steve Wisbauer/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Toddlers are amazing creatures. They are full of vitality and joy and awe. What they are not is particularly rational during a tantrum. In fact, the reasoning part of the brain, the frontal cortex, is effectively turned off during a freak-out.

If mid-tantrum toddlers are all emotion, it goes without saying that reasoning with them is a waste of breath. But you still hear parents trying to talk sense to a 3-year-old lying on his back kicking and screaming.

It's a natural inclination. But it's futile.

Beyond futile, it can even be destructive for the reasonable one in the relationship. Indulging the instinct to try to reason a toddler out of a tantrum can end up increasing a parent's sense of frustration, and since it's an ineffective approach, the fit will only end up lasting longer.

Next up: A few techniques that could shorten the duration…

During: Let 'er Rip

You hear it a lot: The best way to handle a tantrum is to ignore it. And hard as it is to practice in public, especially around the other tourists who've paid a lot for the snorkeling trip your toddler has inexplicably grown bored with, it's nonetheless an ineffective management technique, and for a couple of reasons.

First, a toddler throwing a tantrum wants attention, all of it. Giving your attention only teaches that tantrums work. Withholding your attention, even to the point of turning your back and, if you're in a safe place, walking away until the fit stops, can discourage further attempts at gaining your undivided attention via shrieking.

The other thing to realize is that toddlers have lots of energy, and when that energy turns to anger, sometimes they just need to get it out. Letting the tantrum take its natural course can be the best way to end it.

The ignore-it method is not so easy while vacationing, and is a particularly nightmarish proposition on an airplane, but you can make it work with a bare minimum of evil looks from bystanders. Simply tell your fellow passengers what you're doing: Ignoring the tantrum so it'll end sooner. You may be surprised how far a considerate explanation can go.

Up next: Something to think about while you're letting the kid scream…

During: Read Minds

Make some suggestions. Your young child may just be frustrated she doesn't have the words to say what's on her mind.
Make some suggestions. Your young child may just be frustrated she doesn't have the words to say what's on her mind.
Troy Klebey/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

As if parenting weren't enough of a circus, in addition to the balancing, juggling, clowning and poop clean-up, mom and dad may be able to shorten a tantrum with a little mind reading.

Most toddlers know, at most, a few dozen words, and forming complete sentences with those words is a struggle. This can make it hard to convey what they want, need or think, which can lead to a frustration-induced tantrum.

Everyone wants to be understood. So take a moment, block out the noise (and the dirty looks from other people on the tour bus), and think: What might the child need or want? Have you missed a snack time? Did she see a toy shop on the way to the bus? Could she be tired? Might her diaper have become uncomfortable? While the fit might not be about that particular need, the inability to communicate it may have set the stage for a blow-out, and solving that communication problem could help end it.

Even if you don't go back to the toy store, just acknowledging the desire, and putting words to it, could help ease the frustration and lead to a calmer state.

Up next: When the mind of a toddler can work in your favor…

During: Look, It's Mickey Mouse!

It can take about five seconds for a 4-year-old to lose interest in an activity, a toy or a game. What can hurt you when you're trying to keep him occupied on the plane can actually help you in the midst of a tantrum.

Distraction can be a parent's best friend. If you think of a fit as the least-fun game ever, you could be looking at a quick way to stop it: Suggest another "game." As soon as the child starts freaking out, pull a new toy out of your bag, point out a dog walking by, offer a fun snack, mention a piggy-back ride around the airport, or make a completely crazy face.

With some quick, creative thinking, you may find you can avert a real fiasco.

Up next: Be the change.

During: Do as I Do

A tantrum is embarrassing when it happens in public. It can be downright mortifying, having your child flip out on a Maui beach or at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Everyone's looking at you.

That's the point, though: They're looking at you, not at your freaking-out child, and that's seldom because they think only bad parents' kids throw tantrums. It's because it's how you deal with the tantrum that counts. If you start freaking out right alongside your child, that's when those people start judging you.

It also only makes the tantrum worse, since yelling tends to beget more yelling, and you're showing you're child that when frustration strikes the appropriate reaction is to lose control.

On vacation or at home, the best way to react is with calmness. Speak quietly when you speak, be gentle and stay in control of your emotions. Your child will pick up on your collected state. And if there are any parents among your fellow vacationers, they'll applaud you.

Up next: Hold on tight…

During: Make Contact

Hug it out. Sometimes eye contact, a good grip on the shoulders or a firm hug can help snap a small child out of his meltdown.
Hug it out. Sometimes eye contact, a good grip on the shoulders or a firm hug can help snap a small child out of his meltdown.
AE Pictures Inc./The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you took any childbirth classes before your otherwise-delightful child entered the world, you may remember learning the importance of eye contact in pain management. Eye contact engages and can help focus, ground and shake you out of a total panic. The same thing can help pull a toddler out of a tantrum.

Vacations can feel out of control for a toddler, who typically thrives on routine. One way to end a tantrum is to provide a focal point, so to speak.

Make some sort of gentle but firm contact to get your child's brain back into the rational moment. That could mean a firm grip on the shoulders and some good eye contact. That could mean a strong, long hug. Anything that makes a stable, physical connection can begin to ease the emotional freak-out that is the tantrum.

Up next: Leave the scene.

During: Change the Scenery

A new location -- say back at the hotel where all the toys are -- can usher in a new attitude.
A new location -- say back at the hotel where all the toys are -- can usher in a new attitude.
Sean Murphy/Digital Vision/Getty Images

One of the surest ways to quickly change behavior is to change surroundings. Often, just getting out of the environment of the tantrum can help end it.

Whether you're in a rental car, a museum or a restaurant, if your toddler starts screaming bloody murder and you've tried everything else, get out of there. Step out of the building, pull over, or get to a different exhibit -- anything to change the scenery. A new location can usher in a new attitude.

And worst comes to worst, you've at least saved your fellow adults an unpleasant interlude.

Once the tantrum ends -- and it will end -- you've got one more job to do.

Up next: After the storm…

After: Let It Go

After the tantrum is wrapped up, don't linger over it. After all, vacations are about having fun with each other.
After the tantrum is wrapped up, don't linger over it. After all, vacations are about having fun with each other.
Chris Williams Black Box/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Tantrums are a fact of parenting life. There's no way to completely avoid them. The best you can do is react thoughtfully and then, when the screaming stops, let it go.

Take a deep breath, dry the tears, hug it out, maybe indulge in a little "what have we learned," and get back to your vacation. Holding a grudge is pointless in almost all cases, and especially so when a toddler's involved and you've got your precious vacation time to think about.

Not all tantrum fixes work for all toddlers, so mix, match and alter to fit your family. Chances are you'll find at least a few of these methods succeed with your particular otherwise-delightful child, and every vacation (or every day of every vacation) is a new chance to test one out.

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Sources

  • Bergren, Lisa T. "Temper Tantrums on a Plane. The World is Calling. May 31, 2010.http://theworldiscalling.com/2010/03/temper-tantrums-on-the-plane/
  • Coffey, Laura T. "Screams on a plane: How to quell tantrums." MSNBC. Oct. 22, 2009.http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/33079922/ns/today-parenting_and_family/
  • Dreisbach, Shaun. "10 Ways to Tame Your Kids' Tantrums. Parents.http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/discipline/tantrum/tame-your-kids-tantrums/
  • Pantley, Elizabeth. "Tantrums, Fussing and Whining." Parenting.http://family.go.com/parenting/article-sk-196452-tantrums--fussing-and-whining-t/