Supermarket tantrumTrips to supermarkets with young children in tow can be extremely stressful and most parents will admit, it’s something they’ve come to dread. Children get bored easily and tire quickly, so it’s not surprising that many will start to moan and whine. Most parents try to cope by doing their best ‘Family Entertainer’ impersonation for as long as they possibly can – not easy when you’re also having to dream up healthy, interesting meals that will satisfy the whole family and avoid yet more tantrums round the dinner table. 

When that fails, the next tactic is to give in and resort to giving your little one a sticky bun to eat. As we all know, that will keep the peace for around the 15 seconds it takes to polish off the bun and then you’re back to square one. At the checkout, there’s another meltdown accompanied by requests for the sweets that are cleverly placed in the very, very narrow checkout aisle.

Many parents will feel that there’s simply nothing that can be done about this, but it is possible to ‘train’ your child out of this unwanted behaviour and the key to this is to plan in advance. Follow these tips consistently for a couple of weeks and notice how things quickly get better:

Create a Shopping book. You’ll need an exercise book, a glue stick and some scissors. Just as you have your own shopping list, encourage your kids to compile their own ‘shopping books’ as a reference or guide. They can fill this book with pictures of the products you’ll be buying. They can draw pictures, cut pictures out of magazines or supermarket promotional material. You can also take labels off tins as you use them or cut small bits of cereal packets and other packaging and let them stick those in the book too.  Now, when you’re shopping you can play a matching and sorting game. This is a form of early mathematics. To keep your child occupied you can ask them to look out for things that are on your shopping list and refer to the exact branding in their reference books. They can match the label in their book to the item on the shelf.

Share your shopping list. Draw tick boxes on the list and each time an item goes in the basket, ask your child to tick it off. This helps to make it clear to that you know exactly what you’ve come shopping for and by sharing your list, you’ll both feel more connected. It’s team work.

Stick rigidly to the list. If you’re hoping to wean your children off making those tiring demands for sweets and toys, then you must lead by example. Only buy items that are on your list. If you start to deviate from the plan and get distracted by other promotional items, your child will keep hearing you say ‘I think I’ll just take one of those too. Oh yes, and I fancy that today.’ It’s no surprise when they start to do the same and randomly pick items off the shelves as well. Young children are programmed to copy their parents – they just want to join in the fun. For a few weeks, it will mean that if you’ve forgotten to put something on your list, you’ll have to grit your teeth and walk past the item, knowing that you’ll have to wait till next time. It’s annoying, but if you’re really keen to have better behaved kids in the supermarket, stick with this and follow the plan to the letter.

Keep it short. Our supermarkets keep growing in size – it’s not uncommon to find pharmacies, opticians, cafés and electronics sections all under the same roof nowadays. A quick trip to the shop can take two hours or more! Using your new strategy, make a supermarket visit last just 10 or 15 minutes. Tell your child you’re just going in to get two items. Go in, look for them, go to the checkout, get your child to pay, pack and go.

Throughout the visit use lots of descriptive praise such as:  “You’re being very helpful today.” or “I really appreciate you helping me find the milk.”

The aim is to make your child feel successful. Repeat this process two or three times and then gradually lengthen the time to 20 minutes or half an hour. Build up slowly, for this will enable you to gather lots of proof and evidence that supermarket trips are manageable and your child’s self-image will gradually change.

Pick a different supermarket. If something happens often enough, we begin to ‘anchor’ a set of emotional feelings to it. This could be a sound, a smell, a taste or some other experience. We all know people who feel weak at the knees when they come across ‘that hospital smell’, or the sight of a needle, or the mere mention of the dentist. Nothing needs to have happened for them to already start feeling bad. Bad feelings will have been attached or ‘anchored’ to those experiences.

If your child has repeatedly behaved badly in your local supermarket and been told off each time, perhaps even crying and screaming, they’ll only need to see the logo above the front door to start feeling bad. And, more than likely, you’ll be feeling the same way. You’ll both remember last week’s embarrassing meltdown and sure enough, the same thing will happen over and over again. It’s a self- fulfilling prophecy and you’ll end up going home saying to yourself; “I knew that was going to happen. I knew I couldn’t trust you to behave!” It’s easy to get locked into the same pattern of behaviour week after week, simply because there are too many reminders around you.

In order to break this cycle of behaviour, it’s best to start with a clean slate. Introduce a new regime. Choose a new supermarket and start afresh with different branding, different colours and different behaviour. You’ll enjoy it more too.

 Alicia Eaton is a Children’s Behavioural Specialist based in London’s Harley Street. She’s also best-selling author of ‘Words that Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything’; ‘Fix Your Life with NLP’ and ‘Stop Bedwetting in 7 Days’.  She also runs workshops for parents and teachers as well giving short talks to schools and nurseries. Please contact for more details.