Handling a Public Meltdown

Often, the attitude toward children in public is that they should be seen and not heard, that the parent should be in control of their child’s behavior.  This causes us to feel like people are judging us as bad parents, if we were good parents our children wouldn’t act this way. 

We need to remember that every child has strong feelings in public places, and my child’s behavior during a meltdown is not a reflection of me as a parent.

During a public meltdown it’s so natural to want to control our children and keep them her quiet, even if this isn’t our usually approach.  There is so much worry that can come up and that often takes away from our ability to help our children. 

During the meltdown:

Do your best to ignore other people and just move your child to a more out of the way spot. Do this as calmly as you can. Your child isn’t doing anything wrong. 

Prepare yourself with a standard answer that reassures that person that despite your wailing child, it’s not an emergency and you don’t need them to fix your child or anything else. Something like “He’ll be okay … We just need a little time alone.”

Then do what you do at home.

When the meltdown is looming:

When you see an upset brewing, take a moment to connect. See if you can find a way to play, so that your child can laugh. Laughter relieves children’s tension.

  • Give your child a task.

“Hmm, I forgot where they keep the milk here, I wonder if you can help me find it” or “I just don’t know what kind of fruit to buy this week, I wonder if anyone can help me decide.”

  • Validate and set boundaries: 

“You want to run around the aisles. I need you to stay in the cart. I know it’s hard to stay in the cart and wait. We can run when we’re all done shopping.” 

“You want out, I hear you. When we get to the cereal aisle you can walk next to me and help me find the Cheerios, and then sit in the cart again at the checkout.”

Steps for prevention:

Spend one-on-one time with your child before you take him to a public place, so that you and he are connected with each other on the way into a challenging situation. Then do your best to stay connected. 

Consider running errands first thing in the morning when your children are fresh.  If you are able, slow down your pace so that they can be active participants.

If at all possible, avoid taking a tired, hungry child anywhere.

Before you go, explain, even to a baby, what will be happening. Describe what you will do, and any expectations you have for your child’s behavior. “When we get to the store, we’ll hold hands through the parking lot, then you’ll sit in the cart so we can shop together.” 

If you do manage to distract your child out of a tantrum while you’re out, know that those feelings will need to come out sometime (probably when getting into the car seat).

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