What to Do When Your Kids Don’t Listen in Public

Do you spend family outings disciplining your child? Learn what to do when your kids don’t listen in public so you can enjoy your time together.

Kids Don't Listen in PublicGetting your kids to listen at home is hard enough, but what do you do when you’re out in public?

Maybe you have to raise your voice to get them to hear you. They run away when you need to stay put, or touch things they should leave alone. And being under the watchful eye of others—whether strangers or those you know—can put immense pressure on how you discipline.

We’ve all seen or experienced this ourselves. We’ve witnessed kids who don’t stay seated during story time despite their parents telling them to pay attention. Or the ones who throw toys and misbehave, all with a mischievous smile on their faces.

With behavior like this, it’s no wonder we’re at our wit’s end and don’t feel like taking our kids out in public sometimes.

When kids don’t listen in public

So, are you stuck at home to avoid the tantrums and hassles of being out in public? Are outings destined to feel horrible each time you go out?

Not at all.

You can take your kids out in public—whether for fun or obligation—and have them listen to you as well. After all, it’s crucial that they pay attention for their safety, enjoyment, and for the respect of others around you.

I’ve found these following tips to be the most effective with helping kids behave in public:

Public Tantrums

1. Set expectations before you arrive

“It’ll just be me at the pumpkin patch with all three of you,” I warned my kids. “So, I need you to stay close to me and not run off, even if you see something exciting.”

We had been planning a visit to the pumpkin patch to play and select a few to take home. But as I’ve started doing when I’m the only adult on duty, I set my expectations before we arrive. They understand their responsibilities before the excitement of the place drowns them out.

Long before you step foot outside, describe how you expect your kids to behave. Lay out the rules, like holding hands when you instruct them to, or staying at the park for only one hour. Maybe they need to keep their hands off of grandma’s breakables, or be quiet at the funeral.

They can be more receptive to listening when they know how you expect them to behave from the start.

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2. Define the consequences before they misbehave

Let your kids know the consequences that will happen if they don’t listen.

Why say it before they even misbehave? Letting them know ahead of time feels more like an agreement, a pact. You’re taking them to a place with the expectation of good behavior. If they don’t listen, then the consequence you’ve already laid out will happen.

Telling them the consequence after they’ve misbehaved can feel like an unfair threat. It could still work, but it can also feel like it came out of nowhere, and they might resist even further.

And make the consequences a natural one to the bad behavior. You might tell them you’ll leave the mall if they keep running off. Leaving the mall is a natural consequence more so than taking away their train set at home.

Get more tips on how to handle your toddler running away in public.

Toddler Running Away

3. Show empathy

Let’s say your child arrived at the carnival and is getting to be a handful. He’s yelling in excitement, running to the booths, and not following expectations.

It’s tempting to go into discipline mode right away. Before you do that though, show him empathy so you can see his behavior from a new point of view. This shows him you understand what he’s feeling.

You might say, “I can see you’re excited to be here at the carnival! You can’t wait to go on the rides.” He isn’t out to get a rise out of you, but is simply excited. He’s having a difficult time containing his emotions, not misbehaving for the sake of it.

Then, lay out the rules and responsibilities, as well as the reasons behind them. “You can’t run off though. I might lose sight of you, or you might get hurt or not know where to go. It’s important that you stay near me, even if you’re excited.”

Other needs that empathy can reveal include feeling frustration, hunger, or overstimulation. Placing yourself in his shoes can shed light on why he’s upset and behaving this way.

4. Correct the behavior

Not only should we point out our kids’ behavior, but we need to correct and show them a more appropriate way to behave.

Give a reason why their outbursts are inappropriate, and not “because I said so.” Knowing the reason seems more logical and makes them more likely to listen.

Then, offer different ways to behave, or reiterate the behavior you expect. Let’s say your child is goofing off instead of standing in line at the grocery store. He’s roughhousing with his brother and throwing a toy on the floor.

Let him know the correct way to behave. He should stand and hold his toy and remain respectful while the cashier rings up your items. He can even hug his toy to contain his energy while he waits.

It’s not enough to say, “Don’t do that.” We also need to let kids know how they should behave.

5. Follow through with consequences

Younger children might keep misbehaving because we don’t enforce the consequences we said we would. As difficult as it is to leave the library, we need to do so if they continue to yell and misbehave.

Not following through sends the message that we say empty threats. They might continue to misbehave, not only at the current location but in future outings as well. While you can be flexible from time to time, err on the side of standing your ground.

What to do if leaving isn’t an option? Let’s say you’re at a wedding, and you can’t go home. Give another similar consequence, like moving him away from the crowds for a few minutes.

Get more tips on how to follow through with consequences.

Follow Through with Consequences

6. Show respect

It’s pretty hard to show respect to our kids when they’re not behaving as we expect them to. We feel frustrated, annoyed, and even attacked when they don’t listen.

But it’s during these times that we need to be even more patient and respectful. They don’t need yet another lecture or punishment that makes everyone feel worse.

Showing respect doesn’t mean coddling or enabling the behavior. Instead, remain firm yet kind as you speak to your kids and lay out the rules. Be matter-of-fact as you follow through with consequences. Model the behavior you want them to do so they have an example to base their actions on.

Even better: praise them for their positive behavior instead of only hounding them on their negative ones. This rewards them for making good choices and encourages the behavior you want to see.

7. What is their behavior telling you?

Let’s say you’ve shown empathy and can see that your child is trying to get a rise out of you. Ask yourself what her temper tantrum means. What is her deliberate misbehavior revealing?

Could she need more positive or one-on-one attention at home? Do you need to put your foot down more often because she needs boundaries?

Look at her behavior not so much as the hassle that it can be, especially in public. Instead, see it as a sign of something else you need to address. The behavior is there to signal a need she might have, or a change you should make.

How to Give Your Kids Attention


It’s a challenge when kids don’t listen in public, no doubt. You’re not inclined to take them anywhere, especially when a fun outing turns into power struggles.

But you can help change your child’s behavior in public with a few tips. Begin your outings by setting expectations and the consequences for not abiding by them. Follow through with consequences if he doesn’t listen, no matter how difficult doing so might be.

Show empathy and respect when you interact with him. This can make for a strong, positive relationship and correct his behavior. And finally, see what his antics are telling you. You might realize there’s more to his behavior than not listening.

Hopefully these tips can make your next outing the fun family event it’s supposed to be—even if you’re out in public.

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  1. My son turned two in January and the moments I’m finding the hardest are when he just won’t listen. I try to tell myself that he’s very young and that he’s either forgetting what I’ve said too quickly, or that he just can’t control himself yet. Repeating myself has always been a frustration of mine, and in those moments when I’ve already said NO a million times and he looks at me while he does it anyway, I react before I can rationalize.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Tonil! It’s definitely rough when kids don’t listen, or when you have to repeat yourself so many times. This is also one of my triggers that I have to be mindful of as well. It helps me to anticipate that it’s going to happen, so that I can spot it and say, “Aha, there it is.” Then, having an alternative response rehearsed and ready can help, instead of the usual frustration. Maybe that’s taking a deep breath, clasping your hands together, smiling, turning around—anything to sort of break that automatic reaction.

      But you’re definitely not alone in feeling this way. And you’re right, he’s at the age where this is normal and expected. Hang in there, mama <3

  2. I do all of these things and my son still will not behave or listen in public. He agrees beforehand about the expectations. He repeats and comprehends the expectations. He understands and repeats the consequences if he does not behave or listen. I offer a reward if he behaves and tell him we will go home if he does not. I have given time outs in public and even walked out and went home a few times. He only says he wants to behave on the way out. If I say ok and give him another chance before leaving, he behaves for 1 minute then it starts again. So we leave. I can’t go anywhere I feel like I am stuck at home because whenever I try to go out he acts like this. On a random occasion he is a perfect Angel. What gives? What else can I do??

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Crystal! I can definitely relate to kids not wanting to listen in public. We won’t always get it perfect, and I promise it won’t always be this way. Some of the things that helped me was to keep my own expectations in check. Kids can only take so much before they tire or get bored, especially if we take them to places more catered to adults, or if we take them out too long. I would also keep the outing minimal and as easy as possible for now (for instance, a quick restaurant where you order and pay and eat quickly instead of a sit-down, served restaurant). If you also have something of his that you can bring, that might be helpful, like a simple toy or item that can keep him somewhat distracted if need be.