Acting Out in Public: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?

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boy standing against brick wall pouting

If your child acts out in public, and you don’t respond effectively, your child learns they can blackmail you and hold you hostage with their behavior. Their mindset is, “Give me my way or face my acting out.”

Their behavior may involve yelling, screaming, and tantrums. It may be angry faces and a disgusted tone, disrespectful remarks, and even cursing. Either way, the game they’re playing is using bad behavior to fix their problems and get what they want. And they will keep playing this game as long as it’s effective. Unfortunately, for many kids, it’s the only game they know.

I’ve worked with many parents over the years who routinely gave in when their children acted out. One mother I met, I’ll call her Linda, had a twelve-year-old son who often used threats of misbehavior to get his way.

Linda dreaded taking him to the mall because she knew she’d end up buying him anything he asked for to keep him from calling her names, stomping and yelling at her, and making a scene that left her feeling humiliated and powerless. In effect, her son’s behavior was holding her hostage.

What Your Child Learns When You Give in to Bad Behavior

So what happens when we respond to this type of behavior by giving in? When you give in, your child learns he can get his way if he misbehaves or threatens to misbehave. He learns that misbehavior is an effective way to solve problems. And make no mistake, the message you’re sending to your child is that misbehavior works.

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When kids learn this lesson, they discover there’s absolutely no reason to change and no reason to mature. Moreover, every time you reward them for misbehavior, you’re making that portion of their personality stronger.

That’s right: you’re strengthening the part of them that wants to misbehave and doesn’t want to follow social rules or be civilized. In fact, you can look at parenting in that way: our role is to teach our children the rules of how to be civilized and live in our society.

And in our culture, we go to the mall, we go shopping, we treat people with respect, and we behave appropriately. When you give in to inappropriate behavior, your child grows up without the coping skills to deal with the difficult situations that life presents.

Understand that when your child uses acting out as a problem-solving skill, they are not learning how to develop other, more appropriate ones.

Kids will inevitably throw tantrums when they’re frustrated or upset—that happens. But regardless of why they are throwing a tantrum, the same rule still applies—don’t give in. If you give in, you’re only teaching your child to continue acting out in public.

Don’t Use Consequences When Young Kids Throw a Tantrum

When most younger children get tired and overwhelmed, they have a hard time controlling their emotions—it’s not their fault. Therefore, when children between the ages of two and three throw a tantrum, there should be no consequences other than having them sit someplace until they calm down.

When I’m at the mall or downtown where I live, in the late afternoon, I’ll see little kids around the age of three, four, or five years old crying and melting down. I think most parents recognize that their kids are overly tired, but the adult mind manages stimulation very differently than a child’s mind. We know how to compartmentalize everything and weigh things out.

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For kids, stimulation comes at them like a wave. And the mall is a stimulation tsunami. I think that parents have to be aware of and tolerate some of the frustration their kids will express. Parents also need to learn how to either avoid those situations or find ways to manage them.

It’s part of a parent’s responsibility to know their kid, know how much stimulation they can take, and when they’re tired or hungry and need to leave.

When your young child throws a tantrum, whether it’s because he’s tired or because he’s angry at not getting his way, the management skills are the same: you wait it out, you give a little reassurance, and you don’t give in.

Prepare Yourself for Public Outbursts Ahead of Time

You know what makes your child tired. You know the extra help he needs. And you know the situations that are frustrating for him. Prepare your child before you go into any new or stimulating situation. Say to him:

“If you start getting frustrated, let me know, and we’ll take a rest. OK? And if you think that you just can’t continue, let me know, and we’ll go home.”

You also want to make clear:

“If you throw a tantrum, this is what I’m going to do.”

Then explain to your child exactly how you will handle a tantrum.

By being realistic about your child’s temperament and discussing with your child how you will handle any outbursts, you can greatly improve your child’s behavior in public. And you will greatly improve how you react when they start to melt down.

Start Small When Teaching Your Child to Behave in Public

When teaching your child to behave in public, start small. Start him off in a less crowded area before taking him to a busy one. In other words, if this kid can’t handle going to the mall, take him to the drug store first. Tell him:

“Let’s see how you handle this. We’re going in for five or ten minutes.”

The idea is to let them practice controlling themselves in a location that is more manageable than the mall. That way, you can easily exit if things start to deteriorate.

This is what I mean by starting small: coach them in forgiving environments where they can learn how to socialize, solve problems, and act like everyone else.

Remind Your Child of the Rules

Here’s a great tip for pre-teen kids and younger. Keep an index card in your car with these three rules on it:

  1. Do what I say the first time I say it.
  2. Accept “no” for an answer.
  3. Don’t raise your voice and no rough-housing.

Read that card to your child before you go inside the mall or store. That one small act is going to help your child keep it together. Reading the rules to them is like lending them structure. You can’t assume that kids are going to recall information that will help them change.

Here’s another way of looking at it: let’s say you’re speeding and you get a ticket. The assumption is that the next time you’re in a hurry, you’re going to remember how it felt to pay that ticket, and you won’t speed.

Even though that may be true, each state still has the speed limit posted every five miles. So give your child consistent reminders that will keep them focused.

Don’t React to Tantrums While They’re Happening

If your child breaks the rules when you’re out, I would take them out of the store. If they throw a tantrum, don’t react, don’t even say anything. Stay calm and let them throw their tantrum.

Let me assure you that I know how uncomfortable tantrums can be for parents. But you have to understand: your child also knows how uncomfortable their behavior makes you. And your discomfort and embarrassment are what they use to blackmail you.

In their mind, it’s, “Let me have my way, or I’m going to embarrass you and make you uncomfortable in front of all these adults.” It’s just that simple—it’s blackmail. And you need to stop letting them hold you hostage with their behavior. By not reacting to the behavior, the behavior loses its power.

So, let them throw their tantrum. Have a seat and watch the show. And if people ask questions, say,

“He’s throwing a tantrum, and there’s nothing I can do. It will end soon.”

At this point, the show is over. There’s no way there’s going to be any more shopping. With younger kids, you can just hold their hand and take them to the car. If they resist you, don’t get physical. Just wait them out.

I think parents have to do this every time until the acting out in public stops. Remember this: when you don’t give in to your child, they have to figure out another way to solve their problem.

Leave Your Child At Home If He Can’t Handle the Store

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving your child at home with proper supervision. Say to your child:

“You can’t come today because you can’t handle it. You made a scene last time we went shopping, and so today you’re staying home.”

And if your child promises and begs and swears that they’ll behave, say to them:

“No, let’s see how you behave staying at home. If you handle that OK, then we’ll see.”

And make them sit at home. Make them understand that you’re not going to be blackmailed by their behavior, and when you make decisions, you’re going to stick with them.

Conclusion

Here’s the simple truth: when children resort to inappropriate behavior to get their way, they don’t learn how to solve problems. And when that happens, they go into adulthood with a real handicap.

Many adults only know how to get angry and yell at each other whenever there’s emotional stress. Part of that is because they have poor communication skills and poor problem-solving skills. When confronted with a problem, they only know how to avoid it, which means they let it build up on the inside until they explode.

So make up your mind that you’re not going to let your child hold you hostage with their misbehavior. Don’t give in when your child threatens to act out.

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

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