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How to Respond When Your Child Acts Out in Public

Posted by Empowering Parents Coaching Team

As you push your cart through the store you hear a wail from the next aisle. The cry starts low and rises sharply, followed by,

“I need it! But I NEED IT!!!”

You turn into the aisle and see a mom trying to get her 6-year-old to stop shouting. His cries are getting louder and louder. This is turning into a full-fledged tantrum.

As a bystander, many of us feel sympathy for parents in these situations. We know how hard it is; we silently wish them luck and good vibes as we navigate around the tantrum. You might hear someone muttering, “Get that child under control,” or “I would never allow my child to act that way!” or something else that is equally unhelpful to the situation.

As a parent, how do you respond when your child acts out in public?

  1. Know your Child’s Limits.  Having a meltdown doesn’t always mean that a child is deliberately being naughty. Toddlers are still developing their ability to control their emotions. When they get overstimulated or tired, tantrums and meltdowns are common. Even older children can have trouble controlling their emotions — especially when they are overtired or hungry. You know your child best. How much are they able to handle? A quick run to the grocery store is different than an afternoon at the mall. Shopping earlier in the day might go better than a trip right before dinner time. Can you get some of your errands done without bringing your child? As much as you can, recognize your child’s limits and plan accordingly.
  2. When the Tantrum is Happening. Take a deep breath and acknowledge that this is very hard. Parents feel pressure to make the tantrum stop immediately and when that doesn’t work, they often feel embarrassed and out-of-control. The main thing to remember is that tantrums and acting-out behavior should not result in a child getting their way. You don’t want your child to start bullying you into getting what they want with the threat of embarrassing you with bad behavior. As hard as it is, do your best to stay calm and firm with your limits. Try to ignore everyone else around you and focus on what your child needs from you right now. If your child is really upset, you might need to give them some direction to help them calm down. Try saying, “I can hear you are really upset, but yelling at me is not going to help. Try taking some deep breaths.”

    Don’t give their acting-out behavior any more attention and make your way to the exit. If you can come back for the items later, that’s great! Otherwise, head towards the checkout line and get back home as soon as you can. Sometimes you can’t leave the store and you might need to sit and wait out the meltdown. You can model calm behavior and direct them towards the exit when they see that their meltdown is not going to change your rules.

Meltdowns and tantrums are signs of poor problem-solving skills. Some of this is to be expected and will get better as your child grows and learns how to regulate their emotions. For more help on this topic, this article can give you some good information about how to help your child develop skills for better behavior in public: Emotional Blackmail: Is Your Child’s Behavior Holding You Hostage?

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