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What to Do When Your Kid Acts Out in Public

4 parenting-on-stage dilemmas and how to cope

Published on: June 01, 2017

tantrum boy

When Holly Stewart of Tacoma visited Victoria, British Columbia, in 2014 with her parents, husband and young son, she’d planned museum trips, sightseeing and restaurant meals. Not on the agenda: embarrassing public meltdowns. But during a visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum, that’s just what happened. At a hands-on gold-panning demonstration on the museum’s third floor, 4-year-old Henry found and promptly lost a small piece of gold. Then he lost his cool.  

“He started screaming and flailing. I tried to quietly calm him down and reason with him, but his ability to reason was gone,” Stewart says. “Then, he got even more frantic when he realized that he was not getting a second chance to pan for gold. I scooped him up in my arms to try to prevent him from kicking or knocking over any artifacts or exhibits.”

Stewart knew they needed to leave ASAP, but from the museum’s third floor, a quick escape was impossible. Her only option: bundle a thrashing preschooler through a maze of exhibits to the escalator, which they rode down two floors to the exit with Henry’s screams of “I want more gold!” echoing through the building’s three-story, open-air atrium.

Sooner or later, all kids — even typically mellow, thoughtful ones like Henry — will act out in public. While this is completely normal, it’s also a parental confidence crusher, says parenting coach Jenn Bernert, LMHC, cofounder of Jenn and David Counseling in Seattle. “As parents, we’re constantly wondering if we’re getting it right. When a child acts out in public, we wonder if it’s a reflection of some sort of personal failure.”

It’s not, of course. Kids who misbehave in public are usually responding to some internal or environmental cue in a developmentally appropriate way. In other words, they’re just being kids. But we (with our pained eardrums) still take it personally. Read on for ways to keep calm when tantrums go public.

Scene 1: The hangry hurricane

After the meltdown, Stewart realized that hunger was likely a factor in Henry’s uncharacteristic outburst, since the outing had extended past his normal lunchtime. Once outside the museum, she promptly parked him on a sidewalk bench and fished a granola bar out of her bag. Sure enough, his wails subsided.

When kids’ eating or sleeping schedules are disrupted, low blood sugar and tiredness can negatively impact behavior, says Tacoma-based licensed child psychologist Sarah Heavin, Ph.D.. This is particularly true when travel takes kids to unfamiliar settings — which also, of course, makes sticking to a routine especially hard. As Stewart experienced, the resulting meltdowns can be outing enders.

What to do: Since the museum outburst, Stewart sticks to Henry’s mealtime schedule on trips, even if that means dialing back on scheduled activities. She also keeps a snack in her bag to ward off “hangry” episodes. The family’s recent weeklong trip to Disneyland went off without a hitch, says Stewart, who now blogs about Henry’s eating adventures at How to Feed a Henry. “We stuck with our regular mealtimes and came back to the hotel each day after lunch for an hour or two of down time, relaxing, reading books together and splashing in the hotel pool,” she says of their California dream.

Scene 2: The kid clash

You’re chatting with another parent at the park when you spy a sandbox skirmish swirling around your 3-year-old. Your stomach sinks when you see your daughter clutching a fistful of sand and grinning as her playmate wails and rubs her eyes. The playmate isn’t the only one who’s upset; the other parent isn’t pleased, either. Should you separate the two, force a “sorry” or simply take your sand-throwing child home, stat?

Communicating basic expectations about behavior in advance can help simplify discipline.

What to do: In early childhood, ages 3–6 or so, children still need parental guidance to navigate conflicts with peers, says Bernert. When your child instigates a conflict, say something like, “Your friend is upset, and our rule is that we’re kind to our friends. How can we make this right?” Communicating basic expectations about behavior in advance can help simplify discipline when kid clashes occur. If hitting or throwing sand is a deal breaker for you, simply make sure your child knows this before you arrive at the park or for a playdate. If your child is having trouble complying, cut the outing short and try again another day.

Scene 3: ‘Pretty please’ pleas

What parent hasn’t fielded supermarket pleading to the tune of “But I really, really want it! Please?” Stores can be a minefield for meltdowns, but it’s possible to stick to your guns — and your shopping list. Doing so helps model self-control and financial discipline by way of avoiding impulse purchases. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

What to do: Before the shopping trip, let kids know that you’ll only be buying what’s on your list today — and nothing else, says Bernert. If preschoolers can still comfortably fit in a cart, consider making cart rides a shopping habit, since it’s easier to keep kids from pulling things off the shelves when they’re contained, she notes.

“I’m also a big fan of the phrase ‘not today’ instead of ‘no,’ and validating kids’ interest in the thing they want,” she says. “Saying ‘That’s a really cool toy, but I need you to put it down so we can go to the cereal aisle’ helps kids feel heard, which can help keep behavior from escalating.”

Scene 4: Public parent shaming

When your child melts down in public, you might get glances of pity and solidarity from other adults — or perhaps a snarky comment or two. It happened to me: During a trip to Red Robin, my then 6- and 3-year-old daughters clashed over the equitable division of the crayons at the table, and a stranger told me loudly that she’d “knock their heads together” if they were her kids. I was too taken aback to respond.

When you’re not beating yourself up, it’s easier to make good decisions in the moment.

I still wonder what to do in these scenarios: Defend your parenting, respond to the child’s behavior or beat a hasty retreat and stew about the stranger’s remark all day?

What to do: When another adult remarks on your parenting in a judgmental or shaming way, it can be really difficult because you’re busy trying to respond to your child’s distress, says Bernert. “Feel free to ignore [the remark], and if possible, pick up your child and move away so you can parent in peace. If you can’t move away and feel you need to respond, say something like ‘I’m parenting right now, and your comment isn’t helpful.’”

If internal dialogue is more your style, come up with some positive parenting mantras to help during tough moments, such as “I’m doing the best I can” and “This, too, shall pass.”

And remember that although you may feel as though you’ve been attacked, the stranger’s comment isn’t personal, because that person doesn’t know anything about you or your child, says Bernert. “When you’re not beating yourself up, it’s easier to make good decisions in the moment.”

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