How can we avoid tantrums in shops over sweets?

We dread taking our four-year-old into the shop now due to his aggressive outbursts

Problem: Our four-year-old son can throw some really aggressive tantrums when he does not get his own way, particularly when we go into the local shop and we do not buy him something.

I admit, we had got into a habit of always buying him a sweet or a small toy every time we went into the shop, but we can’t keep doing that. Now when we say no, he starts whining and moaning and then it can escalate easily.

The last time he threw a massive tantrum and we had to leave the shop. Now we dread taking him into shop and are not sure what to do.

The problem is that his grandparents also take him out a lot (they mind him two days a week) and buy him stuff in the shops. Is this confusing him and do we need to stop this also? That might be awkward mentioning it to them as we do rely on them. What would you advise?


Answer: Dealing with young children badgering you for sweets and toys when out in shops is a very common problem that is particularly challenging as you are out and about in a public place being observed how you respond.

Shops are such attractive places for children full of goodies and treats (often unscrupulously placed at their eye levels) and it is normal for them to be tempted and to want them.

At four years of age it is also relatively normal for a child to become very upset and even throw a tantrum when they don’t get what they way. This is especially the case if a habit has been established whereby your son gets a treat each time he visits the shop – in his own mind that is what he is expecting and looking forward to during the visit. Your son is still learning how to manage his feelings of frustration and how to communicate better when upset. So changing this habit takes a bit of patience.

Helping your son manage his frustration

The goal in helping your son, is to teach him how to manage his feelings of frustration without becoming aggressive. What matters most is how you respond when he gets angry and starts badgering you.

If you sometimes give in to his badgering and he gets the sweet, then he learns that badgering and throwing a tantrum gets him his own way. Alternatively, if you respond in an angry way yourself, then you model to him an ineffective way of resolving conflict which can escalate the problems.

The key is to respond, calmly gently and firmly, as you explain to him what is happening: “No sweets today, I’m sorry”. This might mean coaching him to calm down if he throws a tantrum – “Let’s calm down now, it is fine” and even taking him outside for a few minutes if he can’t be managed in the shop. By being gentle, empathic and persistent as you stand your ground, over time you will teach your son a new way of behaving.

Focus on what he can have

A useful strategy is to focus your son on something positive he can have and to make his behaviour dependent on this. For example, you might remind him “No sweets now, but we can read your book in the car”.

Or you can agree to give him a small treat at home once he behaves well in the shop – “If you calm down now and help Mummy in the shop, then we can have a small sweet at home”. Using a when-then instruction such as “When you calm down, then you can have a small treat at home” is particularly powerful as it teaches him that when he manages his anger, stops badgering and instead is helpful, then he gets some reward.

By keeping the reward very small (such as one sweet or a non-food one such as playing with a toy) it makes this easy to implement. Also by ensuring the treat occurs in the car or the home, you break the association with getting “something in the shop” and so change a bad habit.

Preparing your son for visiting the shop

Another useful option is to take time to prepare your son for a trip to the shop. You might say: “Today we are going to buy bread in the shop, will you help Mummy and carry the bread?” Giving him a job and making the trip to shop fun and interesting are all useful strategies.

As you are teaching him a new habit (of not getting a treat in the shop), it is useful to include something rewarding as part of the trip. For example, you might remind him that if he is good in the shop, you will play his favourite music in the car or bring along one of his favourite toys to play afterwards.

In some situations it can be a good idea to set up a few training trips with your son, when you plan a few non-pressured visits to the shop with him, when you can establish the new positive habit.

Supporting his grandparents

I appreciate your dilemma with his grandparents who might continue the habit of buying treats for your son. As a general rule, I usually remind parents that children can largely tolerate different rules and routines in different houses without too many problems.

This means that grandparents caring for children with different rules does not mean the children won’t be able to keep their parents’ rules in their own house.

Indeed, children quickly learn to understand that parents can’t be as permissive as their grandparents about treats and come to respect this.

However, if you do feel it is causing your son confusion, it is your prerogative to raise the issue with his grandparents. If you do this, I would suggest that you start by first appreciating all the support they provide and explain that you need their help in establishing a new routine for your son.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will delivering a talk on Promoting Positive Self-Esteem in children in in Dublin on Wednesday, 10th May.  See for details