What To Do When Your Child Acts Up In Public

Bonnie KoopSelahLeave a Comment


Step one – take a deep breath!  And know that you are not alone.  Everyone’s child loses their marbles and embarrasses their parents in public at some point in time.  Some of us are just blessed with kids who do it more often than others!  So know that you are not alone when your child makes a scene because at some point, some day, somewhere totally inappropriately my child will probably do that too.

So, what are you going to do when your child needs to be reigned in and there are other people around?  Three things to keep in mind:

One, like it or not, other people are watching you.  So be careful what you say and do because you are an example to others and a witness for Jesus.  So let that gently temper your actions and words.

Two, remember your child’s feelings.  When we discipline in public there is the added shame of having their misbehaviour pointed out in front of others.  We do not want to breed toxic shame in our kids by making a spectacle of them in front of others.

Three, in public is not the place to be teaching your child a lesson on how to act.  Those lessons are best learned when your child is at home and they are in the green zone.  Most definitely there will not be any “aha” moments for your child in public about how to treat other children, how to share and so on.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been trying to lecture/teach your child something in public and you are holding them by the arms to talk to them and the rest of their entire body is turned as far away from you as possible straining to get back to the play they are missing?  Point is, they are not ready to hear what you have to say.  So my advice…don’t say it now.  Save it and then role play it later at home when you see that they are ready to hear you.

Now that we have that out of the way, how exactly do you deal with your child in public?  One more side bar, if that’s ok.  Before we talk about what you should do, let’s talk about preparation.  Preparing yourself and your kid to go out is sometimes half the battle.  On the way to anyone’s house to play or eat supper, or heading to an event, we always have a chat with the boys about our expectations.  Try if you can to say these in a positive way.  Our grocery shopping talks often go like this:  “So in the grocery store I need you to keep your hands to yourself.  If you have trouble with that, put them in your pockets.  I also need you to walk nicely beside the cart and not wrestle with your brother.”  I would try to keep things positive but the boys were often very quick to fill in all the don’ts.  Don’t take things off the shelves, don’t ask for anything, don’t punch or wrestle with each other.  Then I would address the inevitable cookie question.   If you can listen and obey while I get the fruits and vegetables, then you can have a cookie to eat while I finish the shopping.

Lay out your expectations for your children so that they know what behaviour is expected.  You will need to do this over and over and over again!  So now that your child knows the deal, do you?  Have you thought about what you are going to do if they act up?  Do you have a plan in your head?  Because if you don’t, it usually doesn’t end up well.  It often looks like empty threats or drastic disciplinary measures that we often regret.  But if we have a plan, we will be that much better off to handle things calmly and coolly with our dignity intact.

And one final thing to keep in mind before I actually give you some tips for disciplining in public….remember what’s going on in your child.  Try to put yourself in their shoes before you discipline.  Being out and about is often overwhelming and over stimulating for kids.  So they are going to go into overwhelm much quicker.  That means they will have a tougher time acting the way they should, controlling their emotions and listening to suggestions to stop.  So the bad behaviour can often be a sign that there is just too much going on and they don’t know how to handle it.  We need to realize that and step in to help them.  Then disciplining looks different if we are trying to help them in their overwhelm rather than simply disciplining their bad behaviour.

Some thoughts for disciplining your child in public:

– Try as much as possible not to do it in public.  What I mean by that is, remove yourself and your child from the situation and deal with things in private.  Go to your car if you have to, use a bathroom at a friend’s house, duck behind a tree so you can just be the two of you.

– Get down to their level and use quiet and calm tones.  They are probably in overwhelm right now so you need to engage them and get them back into the green zone.  The best way to do that is by looking them in the eye and talking calmly and slowly.  Sometimes I find it even helps to take some deep breaths before talking.  You may find your kids might slow down their breathing too.

– Stick to your plan or to your word in the moment.  If you said you were going to leave if they did ________________ again, then you need to pack up and leave.  Unfortunately disciplining in public is extremely inconvenient.  The good part though about being consistent and sticking to your word is that once you follow through a few times your kids believe you and then later on you just need to mention it and the behaviour can change because they know you will do what you said.





Use it or lose it:

Think of a fairly common thing that happens requiring discipline on your part.  Maybe your child hits other kids or screams when you don’t buy them things.  Now think about:

– Have I clearly laid out my expectations ahead of time?  Can I role play this with my child to help them understand and practice good reactions?

– What’s my plan for when they do this again?  (for example, if your child is under the age of 5 and they hit someone, they will have to sit with you for 5 or 10 minutes)


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