The Grocery Store Meltdown

Lately, there has been an recurring theme which parents are asking me about. Basically, what would I do when my child is acting up in the grocery store?  This is a question that is easy on the surface but has a lot of different elements to consider.

Last night, I was doing a radio interview when  a caller challenged me on the strategy my wife used to keep the kids occupied (which I am in agreement).  I love being challenged for many reasons.  One reason is that challenges make me reassess my position at a moment’s notice.

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to lay out three strategies I’ve heard lately (including the challenged one) then discuss each one’s merits/shortcomings.  Finally, I’ll give you the best answer I can muster (which I am sure will be fodder for further debate).

My wife’s strategy:  When the kids were 2-3 years of age, Lauren would walk by the bakery in the grocery store first and pick up a free cookie.

Advantage:  My children liked going to the store with my wife.  They stayed happy while eating the cookie.  Also, my wife let them know the cookie was a special treat. One could look at the cookie as a preemptive strike against bad behavior.

Disadvantage:  Though I don’t remember hearing about blatant misbehavior, I bet my children got a little squirmy once the cookie was gone.  I remember my wife would occasionally complain she had to rush to get out because behavior would start to go downhill.  One could also look at the cookie as bribery.

Brother-In-Law approach: My brother in law does a great job with his children though he and I have different approaches.  He told me recently he tells his kids to chill and move.  This occurs when his children are told “no” over purchasing a store item and they react in less than a positive way.  When he hears complaints, he looks at his kids and says, “chill and move.”

Advantage: Though chill and move are funny words to me, he’s giving directions and is expecting them to be followed.  After my years of working with children, any parent who can have their directions followed is in an advantageous position.  The children may be momentarily unhappy but the meltdown is much less likely to occur.

Disadvantage: The only disadvantage I could see is if his children didn’t want to go to the store because they never got things they wanted.  Mind you, my brother in law and I didn’t talk about how often he gives in so this may be a non-issue in his case.  For some though, a store can be an excellent learning environment so I wouldn’t want to turn children off from going at all.

Caller on the talk show last night:  His approach was to say “louder” to a kid hollering in a store or saying, “I can’t hear you yet.”  The theory is that the comment actually throws the kid psychologically and will discontinue the behavior.

Advantage: When a child is misbehaving, throwing them off psychologically is a good tactic.  When a parent can make a child “think” when they are upset, the anger can temporarily subside; thus giving time to the parent to get the situation under control.

Disadvantage: If the tactic doesn’t work, the child can actually go in the other direction.  That means scream louder and possibly throw in a few punches or kicks.  I’d have to have the strategy proven at home before I would use it in public.

So there you go- three strategies.  Which one is best you may ask?  The answer is simple with complicated undertones.  My first thought is the best solution for any parent is THE ONE THAT WORKS in the heat of the moment.  Any parent who has lost control with their child knows what an awful feeling it is.  I had many circumstances at St. Joseph Children’s Home that I wish I would have handled in another way.

Here are the undertones though.  First, why did the child misbehave to begin with?  Is it because the parent lacks authority at home and the child is merely testing in another location?

Second, did the child go to the store hungry or thirsty?  Have you ever been to a restaurant when everything on the menu looked good because you were hungry?  To a certain extent, this happens to children in a grocery store.  Sometimes when children are hungry, their behavior can slip.

I’ve gone too long on this post.  This should really be a chapter in my next book. Regardless, a parent has to have the ability to say no to their children.  When children melt down after being told no, there is a problem somewhere.  It’s up to the parent to find where the problem is and solve it not only in the store but after they return home.

My next post will be on Tuesday.  Have a terrific weekend!


  1. May says:

    Thanks for attending FFF hop, liking back and i look forward being part of your site.

  2. Becky Jane says:

    I appreciate your comment about 'Whatever works in the heat of the moment'. All the best laid plans can be foiled by these sweet little bodies we call our children! My friend uses bribery to it's full advantage! At the beginning of a shopping day, she gives her kids 3 points. Every time they misbehave they lose a point. If they have any points left at the end of shopping, they get a treat or a few coins to save up for something bigger!

    With my 11 kids, I've certainly had some 'funny' experiences! I do believe that keeping the no-you-can't-have and the yes-lets-get-some, in balance! Shopping should be fun for the parents and the kids!

  3. Julie Kemmer says:

    Not quite sure where I lie. I've used bribery and also used something similar to the chill and move guy but I also mainly just explain it's something we have to do. When the kids were under 2 it worked to tell them to help me find something. To basically talk aloud a lot ie ("can you help Mommy find the spaghetti sauce?) but now that they are older (2, 4 and 6) I mainly explain that grocery shopping is something we have to do. None of us like it but if we get it done quickly it'll leave us time for the park or an extra show at home. I also prefer to do it with the kids so that we don't have to spend my husbands day off of work doing errands. The first couple times I got "tough" about it telling them there will be no presents, treats etc they weren't the happiest but they realized I was serious and now it doesn't pose a problem. We sometimes have treats still or 1 or all 3 get a small present but it is a very rare occasion.

    Would love to have you tackle the subject of kids expecting (and getting) a present every time they go to the store! I'm floored by this. Also parents trying to keep things "fair" between kids. It'll never happen and it leaves each kid feeling like it isn't fair. Love the book Siblings without Rivalry but I enjoy the way you write so would be interested to know what you think.

    • The key word you brought up in your question to me was "expecting." Why are the kids expecting a present every time they go into a store? Here's another one to consider. Who set up the expectation?

      My children (ages 7 and 4) know they can ask for anything in a store. I don't mind and sometimes they get it. In the end though, yes means yes and no means no. Having that boundary established means they can ask for anything but do not presume they can have everything. Hope this helps and thanks for stopping by!!!

  4. Amy T. says:

    My son is 4 and hasn't hit the grocery store meltdowns yet, but I remember my mom getting us the free cookies when I was little. I always looked forward to going to the grocery store for that. My mom was a little unique in that when she went to the grocery store she usually had at least 4 kids in tow. If we were really hungry while we were in the store my mom wouldn't hesitate to open a package of crackers or something (of course she always paid for them at checkout) to tide us over.
    My son usually takes a couple of his toys to the store with us, and if you ever see superman or batman running down the aisles, that's probably him.

  5. Shanan says:

    So far I have been lucky (or planned well) because we have not had a problem with meltdowns in the grocery stores. My daughter has always liked restaurants, so as long as we get an appetizer or ask the waitress to please bring the child's meal out first we don't have trouble.

    I am very careful to plan shopping around her naps–if she hasn't napped and the shopping trip may make her late I see if someone can watch her while I go shopping.

    I give her a snack (usually something I would buy anyway for her to snack on during the week–such as goldfish crackers). I make sure to bring her favorite cup full with one of her favorite drinks.

    And if worse comes to worse, I will leave the store and do time-out in the car. If it gets too bad, I will leave and shop later. No it is not convenient but I really hate to have other people deal my child's meltdown.

  6. I usually go for your wife's approach and try to keep my guy occupied with something. Usually just giving him something that makes a little noise, like rice, works to keep him happy.

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  7. Janie says:

    I have yet to have a grocery store meltdown.. keeping my fingers, toes and kidneys crossed! In terms of toddlers and tantrums scheme of things, what works for us now (20 month old toddler) is being consistent, redirecting and positive reinforcement. I'm sure i'll be needing all the above tips once she gets older and smarter :)

  8. I just posted the other day about my daughters melt down. I have never encountered the problem. My kids are by far perfect but when it came to public outbursts they have never had one! None of the 5… So I was challenged with it for the first time after 11 years of mothering. My daughter got up at library music time walked out and outside just had a melt down she hated me (she is 4) she was thirsty she would be good she was sorry all while kicking and screaming… I was so embarrassed then I realized… No I have to do something. I picked her up put her against a wall (so she wasn't in the way) and simply turned my back and enjoyed the other 2 kids and i sang and danced and ignored her. Boy did it work! like you say everyones approach is different and one might work for them and not me but I sure do listen to others… This is a great post! Now I will have to get the free cookie at the super market lol…

  9. Candice says:

    I tend to try to keep him occupied. I have "store toys" – toys that stay secretly in my car and I take one in the store for when he gets a little antsy. They're toys he doesn't play with on a normal basis and I rotate them so it's always something new and exciting! For the most part it works. It doesn't hurt though that we go during food sampling time…so he can munch :)