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Mama Drama: Public Meltdown Madness

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.

(photo credit)

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 feel 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.

~Exploding Mama

Dear Exploding 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. It is critical to teach your children to behave in public in order for them to be successful in 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 you know 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. 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 – and what they need is better tools to handle the situation.

Be 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, food stays on the table or in your mouth, etc ; what will happen if they are successful – go the park, 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 about teaching your kids to behavior appropriately in various settings.

Be realistic. If your kids have meltdowns or struggle to follow directions at home, there are going to be a few of those situations away from home as well. When they happen, acknowledge that is one down, let it go, and keep focusing on the positive.

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 special errand or restaurant backpacks with things they only play with on those type of outings. 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 to see more of.

What tricks do you seasoned Mamas have to share?

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! Lisa is also available for private consultations. All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.