From family parties to restaurants, learn what to do when your child acts out in public, including how to handle a tantrum in front of others.
I’d be at a family party, with relatives and friends around, or at the zoo, trying to placate my kiddo as he rolls on the floor. Maybe the scene erupts at a restaurant, as strangers peer our way and wonder what in the world is going on.
My kids have tested me in front of others, and no doubt it can be embarrassing. If they’re not kicking their legs, they’re throwing things or yelling. They don’t always act like this, but they’ve all hit a stage when they behaved unruly in public.
And each time, I tried to put on a calm face while inside, I’m about to lose it.
What to do when your child acts out in public
I have a tough time disciplining my kids in public especially when it seems all eyes and ears are on me. I assume others are judging me based on a few seconds of observation. I also worry we’re disrupting others and am embarrassed when the crying doesn’t end.
Still, I’ve learned effective techniques when kids have a meltdown in public:
1. Remove your child from the situation temporarily
I can’t even tell you how many family parties we’ve been to when at least one of our kids cried. The reasons varied, from feeling scared about a big dog to not wanting their picture taken.
When you aren’t able to calm your child right then and there, remove him from the situation. Doing so has many benefits:
- His current situation is overwhelming. A change in scenery can be all he needs to calm down.
- Moving him elsewhere keeps him safe. If he’s breaking things or hitting others, removing him makes sure he doesn’t continue.
- He’s not out on public display. He may cry even more when he feels like he’s a show and everyone is hovering over him or meddling in his business.
- Because you’re in public, you should also consider other people as well. Yes, your focus should be on your child, but be considerate of others who may not want to wait for him to calm down.
2. Focus on calming your child
Once you’ve removed your child, focus on calming him down. Fair warning: this can take a while. Because your goal isn’t to calm him down as fast as possible.
It’s to calm him down, period.
The more you rush him to snap out of it or show how anxious you feel, the slower he’ll be to calm down. Imagine trying to feel peaceful when someone is scowling at you to ‘stop crying already.’
Instead, hold your child in your arms. Let him know you’re on his side, and that you understand his feelings are real. Practice deep breathing, modeling it yourself to see if he’ll catch on.
These antics may seem petty to us, but they’re still young and don’t understand our world the way we do. Hug, pat his back or kiss him on the head. Let him know through body language it’s okay to feel the way he does and that the bad feelings will go away soon.
3. Talk only once your child is calm
When your child has calmed down, then you can explain the situation. Acknowledge his motives or emotions and find a way to relate to his feelings. Maybe that’s saying, “It gets loud with all those people, doesn’t it?” Or “You wanted the balloon but the other boy took it.”
Then, correct his behavior. Let him know it’s wrong to hit other people, or encourage him to use his words next time so people will understand.
4. Offer your help
One of the best ways to end the conversation with your child is to ask, “Is there something mama can do to help?”
Let him offer suggestions of what you can do to help him as he re-enters the scene. If he comes up with no ideas, offer a few of your own. He could sit on your lap for a while, or you could take him to your sister’s room when he feels overwhelmed again.
Knowing you’re nearby to help will make him feel less alone and frustrated.
5. When all else fails…
During winter break, my then-four-year-old son, husband and I went on a weekend trip to the snow. I was pretty excited to go on a ski lift to play in the higher parts of the mountain. I imagined building snowmen and sledding down the slopes.
Instead, after a measly two slides down and not one snowman made, my son was having none of it. He was afraid of the snow lift to begin with, and didn’t understand what the hoopla was. Meanwhile, here I was feeling upset after having stood in line and paid $100 for this experience.
Still, I realized the best course of action was to know when to let it go. When removing him or placating him with hugs didn’t work, the next best thing was to leave.
This sucks, big time. Sometimes you drive a long way to see family. You had already ordered your meal and feel embarrassed to ask the waiter to bag it instead, or you paid $100 for a darn ski lift only to end in one funky mood for everyone.
We do our best, but sometimes our best move is to go home. Don’t worry: you’re not letting your child determine your plans, or letting him walk all over you. These are his genuine feelings and fears, and we need to admit that it isn’t going to get any better.
The most important thing to remember? We all go through this. Any time you feel like all eyes are on you, remember that every parent has gone through the exact same thing you are.
We can do our best to time our outings so our kids are in their best moods. We make sure they took a nap and have snacks ready in the diaper bag. We won’t take them on too many outings so they don’t feel overwhelmed, and we hold their hand so they feel safe as they experience something new.
We can do all these things, and many times they help, but other times, kids act out in public, whether we’re ready for it or not. When that happens, remove your child from the situation and calm him down. Let him know it’s okay to feel upset, and offer your help on what can make him feel better.
We all go through this, from the brand new mom to the grandmother who knows all too well. Remember you’re not alone when you make your exit while carrying your wailing two-year-old.
Struggling with your child’s tantrums? Get my FREE quick guide to help you figure out what to do when tantrums strike. Download it below:
Get more tips about your child’s behavior:
- The 4-Step Solution to Tantrums
- Restaurant Etiquette: 6 Tips for Well-Behaved Kids
- Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Child to Stop Crying
- How to Help Your Child Overcome Fear
- How Sharing Funny Stories about Kids Can Be Hurtful
Tell me in the comments: Where are some of the places your child has acted out in front of others? What are your best tips on what to do when your child acts out in public?
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