If you have ever taken your child with you shopping, you probably realize that stores—especially stores with toys—can activate the seeking system in your child’s brain. Curiosity, exploration, willfulness, drive, expectancy, and desire are a part of this system. In addition, the seeking system activates optimal levels of dopamine and glutamate, making your child highly aroused and focused. If you decide an item of merchandise that inevitably becomes wanted is not needed nor part of your purchasing plan, the desire component of your child’s seeking system will meet frustration when you say “not today.” Then you will have a child with a potentially triggered rage and separation distress system. Tears and tantrums can result.

Here are a few things to think about. First, before you go to a store, lay out the plan. Let kids know whether or not you will be treating them to something at the end of the shopping adventure. If you tell them ahead of time that treats will need to be on another day, the kids won’t be surprised and disappointed at the store. In preparation for shopping, it is also good to remember that both children and adults do a better job managing the numerous frustrations that can be a part of a shopping errand if everyone is rested and fed.

Let’s say now that you are running a no-treat errand with your children. If you are shopping with a child under the age of five who finds something in the store he or she desperately wants, give your child a clear “no,” if that is what you genuinely mean, while remaining empathetic to the desire they feel. For example, “I can see and hear how badly you want that toy truck today, but remember today is a no-treat day.” Then it’s important that you make no further comment and avoid engaging in discussion about it. You certainly can distract your child from the item as soon as possible. Maybe he or she can help you with a sack or list or even your car keys.

If you have children over the age of five, you can offer them choices because the over-five’s brain is more developed. So, you can ask them if they would like to help with some tasks at home as a way to earn money to buy an item on another day. Engaging the decision-making process naturally calms the intensity of emotions, if the emotions haven’t escalated to a point of no return. Helping your child reflect on decisions is also a good way to develop new pathways in the thinking part of the brain.

The next time your child wants something he or she can’t have, set limits with kindness and an understanding that your child is doing only what comes naturally. Children are curious because that is how they learn about the world around them.

More to consider:

Developing tolerance . . .

A child who is regularly given time, undivided attention, patience, and understanding will develop more tolerance for any challenging situation—including shopping without a treat—than a child who faces stressful situations without emotional support.