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 Managing Your Child’s Behavior in Public

By Elizabeth Nelson, M.S., LMHP

Child outside in public.

​​​​​​​A child engaging in disruptive behavior in public can be stressful and frustrating for parents. There are strategies that can help promote appropriate behavior and help manage misbehavior when it occurs.

Set your child up for success

  • Help your child be successful by teaching them the behaviors they will need in public at home. Establish and enforce the rules at home so your child knows what behaviors you expect from them. If you will expect your child to use an inside voice, walk, keep their hands to themselves and follow your instructions when out in public, then you should teach those behaviors at home.
  • If your child is not able to follow the rules at home, where there are fewer distractions, chances are they will not be able to do so in public.
  • Before you go out, make sure you child is not tired or hungry. It is a difficult task for young children to manage their emotions in general. That task becomes even more difficult when hunger, fatigue or illness are added to the mix.

Provide praise for good behaviors and give your child a purpose

  • Tell your child what behavior you expect from them before you enter the public setting. For example, when going to the grocery store set the expectations that your child will use an inside voice, walk next to you, and keep hands and feet to self.
  • Immediately provide praise when they follow the rules. Continue to praise your child throughout the outing to let them know they are meeting your expectations.
  • Give your child a job. Enlist their help in order to keep them occupied with an appropriate behavior during the outing.
  • Before going out, let your child know if there will be an opportunity to earn a treat or not. Stick to your decision. Only provide the treat if your child meets your expectations for the outing.

Choose outings appropriate for your child's age and development

  • Children have trouble sitting still for long periods of time and can easily become bored which may contribute to disruptive behavior. Choose restaurants that have short wait times or make reservations ahead of time. Be prepared with activities such as coloring books or quiet games to help keep them stimulated.
  • Long shopping trips may not be appropriate for young children. Taking children for short outings will help them practice and build the skills necessary to be successful on longer outings.

Managing misbehavior in public

  • It may not be possible to prevent all occurrences of disruptive behavior in public. If your child begins misbehaving, it is important for you to stay calm and collected. Remind your child of the expectations in a neutral manner and be prepared to follow through with a consequence if needed. A timeout may be appropriate based on your child's age.
  • Keep in mind that a public location should not be the first place your child is given a timeout. Start using timeouts at home to ensure you child is familiar with this procedure.
  • Make sure you only give consequences with which you intend to follow through. Threats to leave the public location without actually doing so will result in your child learning that they do not have to listen to you because you do not mean what you say.
  • If your child is having a tantrum, go to a quiet location and let the outburst run its course until your child is calm. If you feel uncomfortable doing this in public, you can go to your vehicle.
  • Returning back to the location and continuing with the original plan after the outburst gives your child a chance to engage in appropriate behavior and shows your child bad behavior is not rewarded.