While any unwanted behavior on the part of our children in public can be embarrassing, for most of us meltdowns (tantrums), are the most trying. Unfortunately, there is no magic button to turn off the explosive, even violent, outburst of a young child. When a child becomes emotionally charged, he or she doesn’t have the resources an adult has to self-soothe. Basically, as parents, we just have to wait out tantrums. Here are some helpful tips on how to make public meltdowns less likely and how to deal with them when they occur.
Reasons for Public Meltdowns
There are several reasons that children have more difficulty in public situations than at home. It is important to understand these if you are to help your child be more relaxed in public. Reasons children may lose control in public include:
The rules are different
Behaviors that may be perfectly acceptable at home, such as jumping, rolling on the floor, tossing a toy in the air, making silly noises, may get negative responses in a public setting. It is essential that you prepare your child by clarifying expectations for the excursion and practicing specific behaviors, such as being quiet for a period of time, remaining seated, eating with utensils, or not wandering away where they cannot be seen.
They are surrounded by strangers
As a parent you have a great many social skills your child has not yet learned. Be patient and supportive as your child, depending on his or her personality, learns to navigate the social waters — not being afraid, but not being too bossy, asking or answering questions, but not interrupting. The more you make your child feel relaxed in the situation, even if it involves taking a little time alone with her, the more likely you are to avert a meltdown.
They feel left out of the task at hand or the conversation
If you are out shopping for appliances, comparing features and prices, talking only to a salesperson, or out with friends where most of the conversation is adult-oriented, make sure to bring along a toy, game, or coloring book that will keep your child occupied. Whenever possible, ask the child’s opinion or include the child in the conversation. Remember: nobody likes to be kept out of the loop.
If they do melt down, they have a wider audience
We all feel the pressure of having an audience. If you feel acutely embarrassed when your child is out of control, try imagining how your child feels with the eyes of strangers all drawn to the scene he is creating. On the one hand, it may be frightening to be the center of such attention; on the other hand it may be stimulating — after all, the child is craving attention and response. Since, while you may have the willpower to wait out a tantrum at home, it is much more difficult to do so in a public place, the best solution may be to take the child to a quiet spot and have a little time alone with him. Just the change of scene and the absence of strangers may provide perspective for both of you.
Tapping into the Kindness of Strangers
Of course, removing the child from the situation is not always possible. You may be hurrying to catch a plane or finalizing an important purchase. When separating the child from the situation is impossible, you’ll just have to carry on with the task at hand while dealing with a kicking, screaming child.
What will help you most in such situations is to realize that the strangers around you are probably more sympathetic than you think. Most of them have doubtless been in your shoes more than once. Disregard these people, or even better, make them a part of the solution, letting at least one of them give you the moral support you need. Meeting a pleasant-looking stranger’s eyes and indicating your predicament (“She takes screaming lessons” or “Don’t worry, his record is 15 minutes”) is likely to elicit words of reassurance that help you remember that your child’s meltdown is only a part of the parenting experience, not a testament to your inadequacy.
If a stranger is critical or judgmental, remind yourself that this person’s opinion, in addition to being mean-spirited, is not an important factor in your life.
What purpose do tantrums serve?
Nearly all children have meltdowns which are really just a way of releasing an overload of pent-up emotions. Allowing intense negative feelings out in the presence of a (hopefully) stabilizing parent is a safety valve that allows your child to clear her mind and, eventually become more pliable and rational. Though dealing with a child’s public meltdown is terribly stressful, handled well it can facilitate child/parent communication by assuring your child that his feelings are valid and that your love is constant, but that you are the person in control.
In addition to preparing your child for a public experience and bringing a few small toys, books or puzzles to entertain her (it’s wise to have more than one option), it is very important to reinforce good behavior. When your child remembers to remain quiet when appropriate, holds your hand when necessary, doesn’t interrupt (or apologizes when she does) — all are actions to be mentioned and praised. The more attention your child receives for behaving well, the less likely she is to behave badly.
You should always have snacks and water available, even if you are going to a restaurant, since your child may not like what’s on the menu or may have trouble waiting for food to be served. It is also a good idea to have a reward at hand or in mind so that your child feels behaving well for the necessary period will result in an ice cream sundae, an extra bedtime story, or a trip to the zoo. Remember, however, that rewards for good behavior are not the same as capitulating to the demands your child makes during a tantrum. You should never offer rewards while your child is acting out; that just gives him the idea that meltdowns yield positive results.
About The Author
Jacob Boney, Psy.D., BCBA-D created Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services with the goal of making behavior analysis available to parents and professionals who wish to practice, teach and disseminate behavior science.