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What about when my child has an outburst in public?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA.      10.2.19

Most parents of young children have been there at least once. You’re in a shop or a restaurant and your child decides to get upset about something.  You have firmly, rightly and innocently said “No” to something, or you have told them it’s time to put their shoe back on their foot.  All of a sudden, the sky is falling and your child is crying and yelling, you are trying to retain some sense of dignity while you debate between coercing your child or dragging him or her out of the restaurant kicking and screaming, with the irrational fear that someone is about to call the authorities on you for being a bad parent. You may also be thinking about how other people are basically judging both you and your child, scornfully looking at you and wondering what you did wrong, why your child is such a terror.

First of all, you are not a bad parent.  This happens with children no matter how great you are at parenting.  Secondly, unless you are physically harming your child, chances are that no one is calling the authorities.  And finally, while other people might get irritated or even alarmed by a child having a tantrum in public, many will not judge you and those who do judge are not your problem.

What can be done about the situation?  The very best thing is to develop some proactive tricks to try to prevent these things from happening.  If you know your child is tired and grumpy and won’t be able to handle the weekly trip to the grocery store, you may consider postponing the trip, making it a shorter trip this time, offering a reward for good behavior in the store (before they have a tantrum, not during or after), or providing your child with plenty of distraction, snacks, and interaction while you’re shopping.  Depending on the situation and your own child, there are things you can do to help prepare kids for what to expect and how to behave in public situations.

Say you’re going out to eat, and you kind of know your child doesn’t love restaurants where you have to wait for your food.  Yet you hope every time that this will be the night that everything goes well, you have this nice relaxing meal with your child sitting there coloring while you chat and sip a drink before your food comes to the table.  To try to help make sure that you will get to have this experience, be prepared. Before you even go into the restaurant, go over expectations for good behavior and remind your child of things he or she can do to enjoy the time more.  You may consider using rewards, such as letting kids have dessert after dinner if they meet certain behavioral expectations during the meal. Choose family friendly restaurants with quick service.  Bring things to distract and entertain.  And if your child has sensory processing issues, choose a quieter restaurant with comfortable lighting and corner booths or tables that are tucked away from the crowd.

But you don’t always know when there *might* be a problem, and you aren’t necessarily always going to be as proactive as possible.  So when the meltdown starts, what can you do?

  • Stay focused on your response.  Notice how you feel when you first hear or see the starting of a meltdown, especially in public.  Are you getting tense?  Can you feel yourself frowning, or gritting your teeth?  Are you noticing changes with your breathing or your heart starting to pound?  What are you thinking about?
  • Use your own simple calming techniques for yourself. Pause, take a few deep breaths, count to 10.
  • Once you are aware of your immediate natural response, focus on what the best outcome can be in that moment.  Think about what power you have to try to get that outcome.  What tone of voice works with your child?  What calming strategies have been helpful in the past?  What is it your child wants in that moment?  Is it worth the battle?  For example, if your child is starting to meltdown over not wearing shoes in the store while sitting in a grocery cart or stroller, that battle might not be worth continuing – you can encourage him or her to just ask nicely.  But if your child has asked for a toy or treat and you said no, don’t give in to the tantrum.  You don’t want them to think they can always get things they want for acting out.
  • If you happen to have a child with autism or other special needs who has a more difficult time in public, consider carrying around some disability awareness information cards about the special need.  These can be great for helping other people understand that what is happening and can reduce their tendency to judge.  This by itself may ease your ind as well as possibly give you extra support when things don’t go well.
  • In situations where your child just continues with the meltdown no matter what techniques you try to prevent it or turn it around, there is never shame in leaving the situation, even if it means carrying your child out of the environment.
  • If you are experiencing repeated outbursts in public, you may consider speaking to a behavior therapist to get some individualized strategies to help meet the needs of yourself and your child.


Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts soon!

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