On one of those nights when I desperately needed to run to the store at 9:00 pm (for what, I can’t even remember!), I observed a mom yelling at a child who was maybe three-years-old because she was throwing a temper tantrum right in the middle of the store. This mom seemed very embarrassed that her daughter wasn’t better behaved in the store, and I was embarrassed for this mom that she didn’t know better than to bring a three-year-old to the store at 9:00 pm and expect perfect behavior.
My internal thought at this point was, “Lady, it’s 9:00pm and you’ve brought your three-year-old to the store. What do you expect of her? She’s tired!”
Pretty regularly, parents and other adults view a child’s behavior simply as non-compliance with directions given to them by adults. While this is sometimes true—especially for strong-willed children—negative behaviors that occur just before nap time or bedtime, or at a time when the child is sleepy are likely caused by the child’s dysregulation due to fatigue. Behaviors that occur right before meal-time, or when the child is hungry are likely caused by the child’s intense hunger.
Children, especially very young children, thrive on a schedule. If children wake up, eat, and go to sleep around the same time every single day—including weekends—and this schedule allows for adequate sleep and food intake, temper tantrums due to hunger and fatigue are eliminated. When done correctly, consistent scheduling ensures that a child is fed before a hunger-induced tantrum occurs. Likewise, consistent scheduling also ensures that the child falls asleep just before his body and brain begin to lose their capacity to handle stressful situations and regulate emotional states.
Before adequate food and rest—especially when food and rest are immediate needs—a child lacks the capacity to function cognitively and his ability to regulate his emotions at an age-appropriate level regresses dramatically. After adequate food and rest, the child is rejuvenated and ready to play, learn and regulate emotions (within age-appropriate limits).
Are you guilty of ignoring this simple cause to your child’s temper tantrums? If you are, that’s ok because I think most parents and child care providers can admit that they’ve messed up in this area at least once. But in the future, if you’re upset with your child for throwing a temper tantrum, or acting below what you know is his developmental capacity, ask yourself:
- Is he hungry?
- Could he be tired
- Did I accidentally bring him to the store when he was hungry, tired or (gulp) both?
If your answer is yes to any of these questions, his temper tantrum is your fault, because he doesn’t have the skills yet to regulate his emotions when he’s hungry and tired. In the future, it’s best to develop a plan to head to the store right after nap and snack, or to bring a snack with you while you run your errands.
Believe me…if you follow this advice, you, your child and the others shoppers will have a much more positive shopping experience.