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Managing Your Child's Behavior 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.
  • Managing Your Child's Behavior in Public

    When it comes to public behavior, prevention is your key strategy.

    You want to make sure that you're setting up your child for success in the public setting.

    At home you're working on some of the same behaviors that you expect from them in public. If you tolerate a loud, yelling voice at home, then it's not reasonable to expect your child to be quiet out in public.

    You want to promote and talk about an inside voice at home. You also want to talk about and promote not touching things that don't belong to you. You can begin to introduce those concepts at home so when you go out in public it's not a new concept to your child.

    Before you enter any public location, review the rules with your child.

    For two and three-year-olds, you want to be brief, hold my hand, inside voice, and don't touch.

    Whenever possible try to state things in a positive way. Keep your hands to yourself, hold my hand and stay next to me, some reasonable expectations for how they should behave in the setting and then immediately upon entering that situation, begin praising your child.

    Nice job staying next to me, you're doing a great job using your inside voice, or thanks for keeping your hands and feet to yourself. You want to be doing that on a very frequent basis.

    How should parents handle a public tantrum?

    When you're in public and an outburst happens, you have a couple of choices.

    One is to go to a quiet location in the store or the restaurant, or wherever you are, and let that outburst run its course.

    If you feel really uncomfortable remaining in the store, or the restaurant, or at church, wherever you're at, then you can leave and go to your car and let the outburst run its course in the car.

    I think it's important to return back to the location so the child doesn't learn if I get upset and have an outburst, we can end this thing that I don't like doing.

    I think it's important to return but sometimes we can't, we don't have time and that's ok.

    If you're in public and everyone is staring at you, know that some of them are also parents, who are sympathetic and have been through this themselves. They may have a different idea on how to handle it but you're doing what is best for your child.

    Also know that some people aren't parents and they have no idea what you're up against. As long as you feel comfortable about the way you're handling it, and you know what's best for your child, you don't need to be concerned about what other people are thinking.

    You just need to do what's in your best interest and your child's best interest in that moment.​​​

Family and Parenting Behavioral Health