Disclosure :: this post is sponsored by The Parenting Center.
We’ve all been there: the moment when your little one throws himself on the floor of the grocery store, screaming because you would not buy candy; or your daughter begins wailing at top volume in your favorite restaurant because of the indignity of being forced to sit in a high chair. Parenting in public can be a challenge, especially if your child is at a challenging stage! Many parents feel judged if their child misbehaves in front of other people. Here are some tips when venturing outside the home (feel free to add your own ideas in the comments section):
Set the stage for success.
Most parents have some awareness of when their children are best able to manage their behavior and tend to plan accordingly (restaurant dining at 5 pm, anyone?). If outings have been stressful recently, try and keep them short and sweet so your child has some successful experiences. One or two errands with a stop at the park on the way home may go much more smoothly than a forced march through a lengthy to-do list. Also, practice prevention by thinking about what helps your child wait in public situations. A smart phone or iPad can help quiet a restless child temporarily, but may make matters worse when a parent removes it. Don’t forget about other diversions, such as a bag with books and toys that’s only brought out during these occasions so the items don’t lose their novelty. And of course, often the best way is to distract is by engaging in conversation. Old-fashioned word games such as “I-spy” or storytelling are also great for older preschoolers.
Keep your expectations realistic and communicate them to your child.
The key here, once again, is short and sweet, so keep it simple and keep it positive: “When we go to the mall, I need you to hold my hand in the parking lot so we stay safe.” If your child is about three or older, practicing public behaviors at home can be both fun and helpful. Play “restaurant” at the dinner table one night, taking turns being “waiter” and “customer” to make it very clear what kinds of behaviors you want to see. Of course, you also have to take into consideration the individual temperament of your child. Your best friend’s two-year old may not have to be carried, weeping, to the car when it’s time to leave the birthday party, but yours may simply need more warnings to help with transitions and an understanding parent who knows this will get better with time, patience, and experience.
Focus on what your child needs, but also consider the needs of others.
Other adults can be critical, and that’s heightened by our feeling we are on display when our children misbehave in public. As a result, we feel embarrassed, maybe even inadequate, and that may prompt us to lash out at our child in a way that isn’t helpful. Take a deep breath, get down on your child’s level and deal with the situation as calmly as possible (even if you’re not feeling that way in the moment). This approach may not immediately solve the problem, but is more likely to de-escalate the situation. We also need to be honest with ourselves about whether our child’s behavior is disruptive to an event or potentially harmful to others (running in a crowded place, being aggressive with another child), and swiftly deal with the situation by removing our child, even if it’s inconvenient.
Finally, have an exit strategy.
Know your child’s limits, and know your own. If you need to leave a gathering to take a break, help your child recover from a meltdown, or simply let him run around for a bit before he can sit quietly again, that may be an alternative if you don’t want to (or can’t) leave the situation. And don’t forget to recognize progress when you’re beginning to see glimmers of the behaviors you’ve been working hard to encourage.
If you want to get together with a group of parents with young children facing similar challenges, check out The Parenting Center website for a list of classes or visit our playroom for parents with children under age four. Take a break from the adult-centered world and relax in a child-centered environment … it will give you both a break!
About Lisa Phillips
Lisa Phillips, MSW, GSW, is a social worker and has been a Parent Educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital since 2001. She received her BA from Occidental College and her MSW from Tulane University. She is the mother of two teenagers.