Jenny Kanevsky waited until her 5-year-old son was safely in the car before bursting into tears herself. The snide comments and stares as...

Share story

Jenny Kanevsky waited until her 5-year-old son was safely in the car before bursting into tears herself.

The snide comments and stares as she carried her tantrum-throwing son out of a downtown bookstore had made a challenging situation worse.

“I wanted to say, ‘Why are you looking at me like this?’ ” said Kanevsky, a West Seattle author and mom of two. “He’s fine. He’s just having a tantrum. You can go back to what you were doing.”

Public tantrums are a parent’s nightmare, said Bridgett Blackburn, a parent educator who teaches classes at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue. “You feel so chastised and judged and on display.”

With more families out and about during the summer, tantrums are the dark side of boring errands and fun day trips.

“The disapproval was very palpable,” Kanevsky said. “You feel like you must be a terrible parent. But I was doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Parents get caught in the public’s assumption that any misbehavior, including tantrums, is the result of bad parenting. But tantrums are developmentally normal for toddlers and preschoolers of both genders, experts say.

Some parents feel cursed their kids seem prone to public tantrums. Why is proof of their good parenting on display only in the privacy of their home?

For some children, public settings are themselves a trigger: the high emotional expectations of a birthday party (and the resulting letdown of, say, the wrong color balloon), the noise and crowds of stores or restaurants and the overwhelming desire for the colorful toys or treats dangled enticingly everywhere kids go.

“Everybody has a bad day,” said Lynne Reeves Griffin, author of “Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment,” which will be published by Berkley Books next month. “When you’re a kid, this is how it comes out.”

Sensitive or spirited children — kids who by temperament just can’t “go with the flow” — are more prone to tantrums, parent educators say.

“What a child is telling you with a tantrum is: ‘I’ve had it. I’ve exhausted every coping mechanism for stress relief,’ ” Blackburn said. “Once they’re done, they’re often just like Jell-O.”

Silverdale mom Kathryn Harrison took her two children, ages 3 and 4, to the Snoqualmie Valley Railroad’s Day Out With Thomas event last month. Her 4-year-old daughter, who is autistic, was disturbed by the people and noise.

“She wasn’t screaming hysterically, but she was visibly upset,” Harrison explained. “Another mother with a child walked by me and said to her child, ‘That is what you look like when you cry when you don’t get your way. Is that how you want to look? Like a silly crying girl?’

“I wish that people could see that not all children are screaming or crying because they did not get their way or were not allowed a toy they wanted,” Harrison said. “Some children cry because they are overstimulated and they cannot process everything in a quiet fashion.”

Many parents say there seems no single way to mollify tantrum bystanders. “If I disciplined them, I was criticized, and if I didn’t, I was criticized. So sometimes you can’t win either way,” wrote one mom in an e-mail to The Times.

When parents call Parent Trust for Washington Children, they often feel guilty for responding to a tantrum more harshly than they intended because of the public disapproval, said associate director Linda McDaniels. “People will say, ‘I wanted to look like I had control of the situation.’ ” She advises parents to stay focused on what’s best for their child.

It’s frustrating for parents because kid tantrums can seem so irrational and unpredictable.

“It was sad for me because we’d had such a nice time,” Kanevsky said. “I didn’t want it to end like that.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091