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Picture this, you’re in a public place or at an event, and your child starts having a meltdown. People begin to stare, and you feel the weight of their judgement on you. You’re embarrassed, and you want it to stop. For many of you, you don’t have to imagine it; this is the familiar episode of your child’s misbehaviour in public.
By now, we would have all seen the viral video of the Duchess of Cambridge struggling with her toddler’s epic meltdown during the Jubilee celebrations for his great-grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Many parents have experienced their children’s misbehaviour in public so Louis’s behaviour at this very public event is not unique to the royal toddler.
Children’s misbehaviour in public is normal, more common than you think and is may be caused by many different factors.
Although some people have suggested that children’s misbehaviour in public is a sign of ineffective or weak parenting, this is a common misconception.
In this article, you will see why your child’s misbehaviour in public is not a sign of weak parenting or even your child’s fault. I will also provide expert advice from Dr. Kai Morgan, Clinical Psychologist, on how to deal with it.
What You Need to Know about Children’s Misbehaviour in Public
Children’s misbehaviour in public can be caused by several things, including tiredness, hunger and the need for attention. As children often struggle to express their feelings and emotions, this often results in an explosion of anger and misbehaviour.
According to Dr. Morgan, children have many different feelings, temperaments, and emotions that they and their parents are getting used to. When a child misbehaves in public it could be that the child has a low tolerance for emotions or low tolerance for pain.
She also notes that there may be other things influencing your child’s misbehaviour, such as autism, ADHD, separation anxiety or anxiety in general.
So, parents need to understand that their children’s misbehaviour in public is not anyone’s fault.
What are Some of the Triggers for Children’s Misbehaviour in Public?
You should always keep in mind the things that could trigger your children’s public meltdown. As Dr. Morgan notes, anxiety-provoking situations are one of these many triggers.
Anxiety-provoking situations cause people to be worried, anxious and stressed and may include situations like being in a crowded place or event, meeting new people or having to perform.
As anxiety-provoking situations are emotional and stressful, your little one is likely to have a meltdown because he simply cannot express to you in words how he feels about the situation. He acts out instead, using his behaviour as a signal for what he is feeling.
Another thing that could trigger your child’s meltdown in public is a restriction on his movement. Young children and toddlers cannot sit still for a long time. They want to move about and tend to jump from one activity to the next.
Being required to sit still at a function for more than two hours will likely trigger your child’s misbehaviour. This is what we witnessed as Prince Louis struggled to keep still during the Jubilee celebrations.
While there are plenty of triggers that can turn a situation from a nice day out to a cry-fest, the most important thing that you need to know is that understanding your child is the key to success in managing their behaviour in public.
How Understanding Your Child Can Prevent Their Misbehaviour in Public
Dr. Morgan states that there is no one-size-fits-all when dealing with children’s misbehaviour in public because every child is different and has a different temperament. This is why you need to understand your children so that you can tweak your strategies to them and situation.
“Parenting is a difficult job. We hear it all the time that there’s no manual, but…I want that to sink in to parents, that there really is none. There is understanding your child, and there are guidelines that professionals like psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals will give you that can be helpful. But we always have to understand how we’re going to tweak and nuance this for our child who is presenting with these particular issues.”
The first step is understanding what is triggering your child’s behaviour and this understanding will give you insight into how to deal with the problem.
Tips for Dealing With Children’s Misbehaviour in Public
1. Stay Calm
While it’s easier said than done, remaining calm while your child is misbehaving in public is very difficult. This is especially hard when you feel all eyes are on you and that you are being judged as a bad parent. However, it is important to remain calm in those moments because reacting out of anger or embarrassment will only make the situation worse and may prolong the tantrum.
2. Be Gentle but Firm
Understanding your child means knowing when he has reached his limit and the things that are likely to upset him. This understanding also means that you show him empathy by being gentle, kind and responsive to his emotional needs. You can be gentle yet firm when setting boundaries, giving instructions and applying consequences to his behaviour.
3. Wait Out the Tantrum
During a tantrum, Dr. Morgan suggests stepping away for a bit to allow your child to calm down. There is no point in reasoning with your child in the middle of a meltdown. However, this strategy might be suitable for older children who are least likely to throw themselves to the floor or break objects around them. For younger children, you can remove them from the situation or find a quiet place for you to sit with them while they calm down.
4. Do Not Give In to the Tantrum
Sometimes children’s misbehaviour in public is a strategy for them to get what they want. If you know that there’s nothing wrong with your child other than the fact that you’ve told her that she can’t have something, then it is best to ignore the tantrum and allow her to calm down.
Do not give in to her demands when she has a tantrum because in doing so, you are teaching her that throwing a tantrum is necessary to get her way.
5. Communicate with Your Child
Communication is an important part of any relationship, even more so for the parent-child relationship. Communicating with your child about your plans to be in public can prevent his misbehaviour. You can let him know ahead of time what you plan to do, where you are going, how long you will be out and what behaviour is expected of him during your outing.
When communicating with your child, it is important to remember that regular communication throughout the day is necessary. You may also need to remind him or give him a heads-up every time you will change an activity.
Additionally, when you discuss with your child the expected behaviours during your outing, be sure to communicate to him the consequences for not keeping to the agreed behaviours and follow through with them as necessary.
6. Plan Ahead
Although it is not always possible to plan an outing on your child’s schedule, it is important to plan for the eventual meltdown when that happens.
If you know that you will be out in public during a time when your child is likely to be cranky or hungry, plan ahead by taking snacks and finding a quiet area where your child can be removed from an overstimulating or anxiety-provoking situation.
You might even consider taking a few of her favourite toys and books to distract her once you notice changes in her mood or behaviour. By doing this, you can prevent a meltdown before it begins.
When Should Parents Worry About Children’s Misbehaviour in Public?
According to Dr. Morgan, if your child’s misbehaviour becomes a general pattern of behaviour, then you should be concerned.
You may need to seek professional help if your child’s misbehaviour is consistent, especially if you notice it at home when you go out in public, and if the teachers tell you about the misbehaviour at school.
Your child’s misbehaviour may be a symptom of a bigger problem that needs identification and intervention.
Dr. Kai Morgan is a registered clinical psychologist in Jamaica. She worked as a Clinical Psychologist at the University of the West Indies as a lecturer and at the University Hospital of the West Indies for 15 years as a consultant in the Department of Community Health & Psychiatry. In 2016, she started a private practice and consultancy work.
She is currently the Co-Chair of the Professional Practice & Standards Committee of the Caribbean Alliance of National Psychological Associations (CANPA), sits on the Executive Board of the Lister Mair/Gilby School for the Deaf, and is a member of the American Psychological Association’s Global.