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Ask An Expert / Children / fatherhood / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Tips for taking your tantruming fighting kids in public

Dear Mama Drama:

I have nearly decided I cannot take my kids out in public anymore. Every time I do, they have terrible meltdowns and we all end up miserable. 

They are two and four and will either fight, throw tantrums, or run around like crazy when we go to a store or restaurant. I am so embarrassed by their behavior and that people will think I’m a bad parent. I don’t want to embarrass them by disciplining them in public, so things tend to get really out of control. By the time we get home I am ready to explode.

~Home Bound Mama

Dear Home Bound Mama:

Taking small children out to run errands or for a meal can be a challenge and I am sure you are not the only mom to feel her only recourse is to be home bound with her kids. Sometimes when things get crazy we feel like our kids are out to get us. Really, they are just communicating – not in a positive, pro-social manner – but effectively nonetheless. It is critical to teach your children to behave in public in order for them to be successful in life as well as for you to have a life.

The first key to successful outings is to have compliant behavior at home. Take a look at how things are going there and work to acknowledge when your children cooperate, share, and follow directions right away. You can carry those examples with you then as you prepare for an outing.

As adults we know what to expect from the grocery store or restaurant, but children often don’t understand how it all works. They may feel bored, confused, overstimulated by lights, visuals, and sounds, or be unsure of when they will ever get to leave. Any of these feelings can lead to acting out behavior.

Be clear about expectations:

  • Clear with yourself about how much time your kids can realistically handle in a store; how hungry they are and if you need to get them something to eat immediately instead of waiting five more minutes when the big meltdown will hit; how bored they’ll be on this outing and what you can bring or do to keep them occupied; and how you can support them in being successful.
  • Clear with your kids about what you are going to do – i.e., first the bank, then the grocery store to get 10 things, then to the park to play; how you expect them to behave – very clear here with specifics, i.e., sit in the cart at all times, if you want something ask first, etc ; what will happen if they are successful – go the park or play playdoh while mom puts groceries away, etc.,

When you don’t discipline your kids in public, it sets them up for failure. They need you to set appropriate boundaries and stick to them. Treat them respectfully, but be firm. Maintain your authority to keep them safe. Let them know that wild behavior is not acceptable in those settings. Discipline doesn’t equal being mean, it is training your kids to behavior appropriately in various settings. (…and a spot on the floor a few feet away from you makes a great traveling time out space when needed.)

Start small with short outings to one place. Go at a time of day when your kids are well-rested and have eaten recently. Bring books, drawing pad, magnadoodles, and other small items for them to entertain themselves. You can even make a special errand or restaurant backpack with things they only play with on those type of outings to keep them novel and interesting. Throughout the trip tell them what they are doing well, i.e., “Thanks for keeping your hands in the cart. Thanks for sharing the book with your brother. I’m noticing you are using a lovely inside voice.” Specific, genuine praise will teach and reinforce the behavior you want them to use more.

What tricks do you seasoned Mamas have to share?

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1 Comment

  1. So agree with this. One thing I was pretty good at was follow-through. If my kids started to act up in public, they were disciplined or removed from the situation. The result was they rarely had public meltdowns.

    At home, on the other hand? Another story. 🙂

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