How to Handle Stressful Parenting Situations in Public

If you’ve experienced the challenge of dealing with your child’s public misbehavior, you know it is no fun. For most of us, having our child misbehave in public calls into question our parenting skills and can result in embarrassment, a feeling of being judged, and even humiliation.

Handle Stressful Parenting Situations in Public

While tantrums are perhaps the most commonly observed forms of children’s misbehavior, they are by no means the only type. In this article we will discuss some of the other childhood misbehaviors that may occur in public, what causes them and how they can be most effectively handled.

Everyone can agree that having one’s dirty linens aired in public is an upsetting experience. When our children misbehave in a public setting, observers almost always hold us accountable for the disturbance so, in addition to dealing with our child, we feel pressured to fix the situation immediately or be considered “bad parents.”

It should help to remember that children have not yet been fully socialized, so what sometimes seems to be misbehavior on the part of a toddler or young child often involves actions that are entirely age-appropriate. Most of the people surrounding you in a public setting are aware of this. The occasional person who makes a critical comment is being socially inappropriate, not you or your child.

Types of Stressful Public Parenting Situations

While our children often make us feel proud in public, we have to be prepared for negative feedback when our children:

  • Shout, scream, bang or otherwise make loud noises
  • Argue with us or with others or challenge our authority (combative behavior)
  • Handle or destroy property
  • Say unacceptable words
  • Ask inappropriate questions
  • Make uncomplimentary comments about appearances of others
  • Take things that don’t belong to them
  • Try, and possibly succeed in getting free of our control by running or climbing.

As distressing as such behaviors must be, it helps to remember that they are normal at certain stages of development and that not all children reach developmental milestones at the same age. Of course, when a toddler performs the above actions, he or she may be acting in all innocence – excited to see what’s on the shelf, genuinely curious about an obese person or someone in a wheelchair, simply repeating a word heard at the public playground, or shouting with sheer exuberance. It is often best to react with good-natured humor to help your child behave more acceptably.

Difficult Public Situations for Children

One helpful recommendation to parents of young children is that they prepare for times when their children are likely to become a bit unhinged, such as:

  • Large gatherings (family occasions, meetings, parties, large stores, restaurants)
  • Places that are especially quiet (worship services, ceremonies, movies or concerts)
  • Transitional times, moving from one activity to another (going to daycare or school, leaving a friend’s house or recreational activity, stopping play to go to bed)
  • Being with a stressed caregiver (parent who is hurrying, babysitter who is upset)
  • Unexpected situations (the car breaks down, the teacher is absent)
  • Being frustrated (having difficulty learning, losing a game, not being called on in class)

Knowing that these are times that children are likely to behave inappropriately, you can prepare them for such experiences, not only by explaining what they should expect and how they should behave, but also by practicing skills like being very quiet, eating with utensils, not interrupting, not talking back when you set limits.

How to Respond in a Helpful Manner

It is important to remember that the less control your child is showing, the more important it is for you to remain in control. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Nevertheless, the more patient and gentle you appear, the more likely the child is to calm down quickly. In many situations, simply answering an inappropriate question in a quiet tone is enough to imply that this is not a topic for public conversation, one that you can discuss in depth at a later time. Such a response on your part can keep the situation from escalating.

Sometimes, a child making a lot of noise or knocking things over is seeking your attention. No matter how much of a rush you’re in, you may be able to calm the waters by making a joke, playing a silly word game, or even simply giving a hug. Your closeness and patience may be the best remedy. If it is possible to get the child to a private spot for a minute for a little one-on- one conversation, this may be soothing to both of you.

It is often a good idea to calm yourself by making an alliance with someone in the vicinity who seems sympathetic. A smile, gesture, or a few words indicating your problem can make a stranger (cashier, nurse, fellow shopper or member of the audience) become your ally. The ability to share the situation will make you far less tense and will, subsequently, often relax your child.

About The Author

Jacob Boney, Psy.D., BCBA-D created Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services with the goal of making behavior analysis available to parents and professionals who wish to practice, teach and disseminate behavior science.

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