Shopping with Toddlers: 12 Tips for Surviving a Trip to the Store

You might dread having to bring your toddler to the grocery store, but you can avoid a tantrum or meltdown with these tips to help keep your child engaged through check out.

Mother and Toddler Shopping Bell Peppers
Photo: Maria Sbytova/Shutterstock

As a parent, is there anything more terrifying than the idea of taking little kids along on a shopping trip to a big box store or supermarket? The toy aisle, the checkout line candy, the impossible-to-maneuver car carts—it's exhausting to even think about, and enough to make you order pizza for dinner…again.

But sometimes, a Target run with your toddler in tow is simply unavoidable. And while it will probably never be an enjoyable experience, there are ways to head a retail-induced meltdown off at the pass. Here are 12 easy-to-implement tips for smooth sailing shopping.

Before you go shopping:

1. Anticipate and Assess. Before you go somewhere, think about whether it might be a tricky setting for your child. What will the experience be like for her with regard to temptation level and sensory input? Will there be lots of rules she needs to follow? Remember, there is a chain of events leading up to every tantrum, offering multiple points for intervention or prevention. If you anticipate the specific challenges your child will likely face (for example, the display of cupcakes in the bakery aisle) you might be able to stop her tantrum before it starts.

2. Build in a reward. Contrary to what you may think, it's OK to build a reward into a shopping trip, so long as the expectations around it are clear: "If you stay next to me and use your inside voice the whole time we're at the supermarket, you can pick out a treat on our way out. If I need to give you more than two warnings though, we won't be able to do that." Remember, the distinction between a reward and a bribe is important: a reward is promised in advance, before the possible negative behavior; this way you are not unintentionally reinforcing that behavior. A bribe, on the other hand, occurs once the unwanted behavior (like a tantrum) has begun, and therefore sends the message that yelling/screaming/crying can be effective in getting the thing that you want.

3. Don't squeeze in one last thing. I don't care how badly you need new lightbulbs. Your family will function better by candlelight than you will if you schlep your preschooler to the drugstore right before dinner after a packed afternoon. It's better to cut something off your to-do list for the day than it is to try to do too much and inevitably wind up having a nightmare "last stop."

4. Modern technology for the win (sometimes). If you live in an area where it's possible, and it's a financially feasible option for your family, don't be afraid to make life easier by relying on the wonders of the Internet and ordering what you need online. However, I don't recommend you do this every time you run out of paper towels or breakfast cereal; we can't model (and therefore teach) that avoidance is always possible or preferable. We raise resilient children with good coping skills in part by letting them have experiences that are frustrating and overwhelming, and by showing them that they can get through it.

5. Become a team with your child. This piece is so, so important. Your child does best when he feels like you "get" him, and this is doubly true in tricky settings. Your child needs to know that you are there for him, rather than just waiting for the proverbial $#%* to hit the fan. One way to help ensure that you approach things as a team is to give your shopping trip a name that evokes fun and positivity (Mommy and Aaron's Adventure in Costco, Jonas's Journey to the Supermarket). Feel free to really get into it—come up with a song or cheer you can sing as you go.

At the store:

6. Engage your child. Sounds simple, because it is, at least in theory. A tricky setting is a great place to talk to your little one about his interests. Make sure to be specific: ask him to tell you his favorite joke again, or about the episode of Paw Patrol he watched over the weekend, or about what he wants to be for Halloween next year (they ALWAYS know!).

7. "I Bet…" Toddlers and preschoolers go nuts when you "bet" they can't do something; they rise to the challenge almost every time. Try these: "I bet you can't do the hokey pokey all the way down this aisle," "I bet you don't know what color this is (point to something)," "I bet you can't count everything in our cart so far," "I bet you can't name everyone in this room."

8. Give your child jobs. To the extent that your child feels like your helper—and ideally really embraces this role—she most likely won't have a tantrum. Have your child help you get things off the shelf, put things in the cart, or place items in shopping bags. If no immediate jobs come to mind, make one up. I recently asked my own son to "help" me figure out how many hair elastics I had in my bag.

9. Don't push it. Remember: leaving is an option. If it feels like you’re skating on thin ice with your toddler's ability to hold it together, it's OK to abandon ship (and your shopping cart). If you do leave before you intended, either before or during a meltdown, this is not a failure—either on you part or that of your little one. Children and parents aren't perfect, and there is nothing like a family trip to the mall to make that abundantly clear.

On your way home:

10. Pat yourself, and your little one, on the back. Really. You (both) did it. No matter how it went. If it didn't go as well as you might have hoped, take the opportunity to reflect. Think about what you might do differently next time—without beating yourself up—and do something to reestablish the connection between you and your child.

11. Make good on any rewards you may have promised your child. That is, presuming she held up her end of the bargain.

12. Exhale.

The Tantrum Survival Guide Book Cover
The Guilford Press
Rebecca Schrag Hershberg Portrait

Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., is the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and the founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services.

Excerpted from The Tantrum Survival Guide by Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission from The Guilford Press.

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