No Meltdown Outings: How to Manage Your Child’s Public Behavior

Tips on how to encourage good behavior on outings with your child

Public outings with your child can be quite challenging and demanding, and there tend to be more excursions over summer vacation. Children sometimes find the new environment, whether it be a store or amusement park, to be over-stimulating, and want to carry out the outing ‘on their terms’ rather than on yours. However, if you make a plan in advance, there are some strategies to improve the situation and make the outing more tolerable, if not more pleasant.

Some Tips for Successful Public Behavior:

1. Start Small

Just like anything else, behavior during an outing is a skill that is learned over time. Role-play at home (set-up a mock store or restaurant). Start with short stints, then increase exposure. Quick daily outings (in and out, but longer over time) are better than long trips at first. For example: a brief trip to a local deli, then to a restaurant…

2. Agree on ‘Rules’ Before Leaving

Outline an explanation of where you are going, expectations for behavior, and the rewards (or consequences) if things go well, or not so well. Make sure your child understands what your (achievable) expectations are.

3. Make the Schedule Clear:

What will happen during the trip, where you’ll be going, what they will do (park, walk, go to a particular store, ride in a cart, take a snack break, ride or not ride certain rides at a park…) and how long it will take? Show photos ahead of time of where you’re going, if possible. Remind them of what part you are at during the excursion, and what comes next. A picture schedule can be very helpful.

4. Provide Simple Direction on How to Behave Well:

Holding an adult’s hand, stay close, etc. Frequently tell them how they’re doing and offer tons of praise and give little tokens for good behavior whenever you see good behavior, or every so often during the outing. They can trade in the tokens for desired items.

5. Get Your Child Involved

Ask questions! If shopping, your child can help find items – keep them occupied. You can even give them money to make their own purchases. Bring along favorite toys, food, or familiar item. Have them help plan out the day with you when you put together the outing.

6. Avoid a Meltdown

Limit how often, length, and where you shop depending on your child’s tolerance level. Keep trips short, take breaks, and use a stroller. Make sure they are not tired or hungry (either of you). Be careful of your own attitude and fatigue (keep upbeat, happy…). Take along a wish list. If he sees something he can’t have, add it to a wishlist. Share enthusiasm for desired items. Try to avoid tempting places, or keep in small doses.

7. Prepare, Plan, Practice!

Sometimes it can feel frustrating, especially if the outings are to somewhere with challenging distractions. Develop ‘Social Stories’ about public outings, and encourage your child’s involvement with the process. Try to prepare with a visual schedule well in advance. Go at off-hours (6-7 PM or early in the AM, or early in the week). Know the store/destination layout in advance (bathrooms, exit, food, water fountain, babysitting, fire extinguishers (that was a joke)…). If possible, have another adult with you, especially if taking multiple kiddos. In certain situations, you can ask a psychologist to prescribe accommodations at an amusement park or similar destination.

Reducing Overstimulation on Your Outings

Many children find even busy supermarkets to be stimulating, if not over-stimulating. Here are some things to think about if your child tends to get overwhelmed in some environments:

  • Some places are simply too overloading for some children (Chuckie-Cheese…)
  • Physical overstimulation of crowds: brushing and compression. Avoid long lines, large crowds, noisy environments
  • Take breaks or do shorter stints
  • Noise-Reducing headphones may help
  • Redirect to details (refocusing on specific items or areas of the store helps to squelch child feeling overwhelmed by the surroundings)
  • Deep breaths; count to ten
  • Don’t push the limits. At times it’s best to simply not take your child

Watch Out for Problem Behaviors

Problem behaviors can be a form of communication. Note the triggers, problem areas, and anything that makes it predictable. If you can predict it, you can prevent it! Some issues to look out for are boredom, overstimulation, hunger, and fatigue (it’s tough for those little legs to keep up).

Managing Public Behavior: Behavioral Approaches

Behavior management is the key; remain consistent and remember that what works at home, will often work in public as well. Try to be consistent with behavior management in all settings (between home, school, community). Reinforce good behavior (you get what you praise, and be specific in that praise). When misbehavior occurs, intervene and make eye contact as soon as it happens, and then redirect to replacement behavior. Use time-outs in the store, or take a break outside the store. Avoid losing your cool. A time out does not need to be a “punishment” but, rather a quiet moment outside the store to calm.

Distract and Redirect

Here are some tricks to effectively redirect your child to what you want him/her to do, rather than what you don’t want:

  • Tell them what to do, not what not to do
  • 1-2-3 Magic
  • Have a plan ahead of time, and always have a Plan B!
  • Remove your child to a private place to discipline
  • Give choices (stand beside me or stop at the end of the aisle)
  • Get eye contact before giving a direction
  • Make a game of shopping (What cereal is in the yellow box; I spy)
  • Stores are like oversized classrooms that just happen to sell things. Make a trip a learning opportunity. This strategy also helps to keep the child busy, and keeps their attention.
    • Count the number of items you need
    • Find the items based on color or size
    • Make a list at home, and have the child help find the items
    • Name the foods in the cart, how they can be used, where they came from
    • Use all senses; notice smells, texture, differences in color
    • Older children can help with checkout, request paper or plastic, give coupons…

Dealing with Other’s Judgements

Sometimes, when you are in a public place with your child, people find it necessary to put in their ‘two-cents’; especially if your child has a learning or behavioral difficulty. Here are some ways to deal with that frustration:

  • Autism Awareness Cards (explains autism and how to be supportive)
  • “My child is autistic, what’s your problem?”
  • T-shirt: I have autism; be nice to my Mom
  • Find some merit in their complaint (child making noise in a restaurant…)
  • Keep it in perspective (all kids freak out sometimes in stores; it’s kinda funny sometimes)
  • Simply ignore them

Safety First on Summer Outings

It’s important to stay safe while having fun excursions together this summer. It’s important to remember snacks, sunscreen, & pool floaties, but what else?

  • Never leave your child alone unsupervised in a car
  • Consider a name tag
  • Some parents have some success using a harness and tethering device (“leash”) that can be used in more extreme situations where safety is an issue. However, it is important to ‘phase’ out the leash for increasing periods of time while using high levels of positive reinforcement, ie: praise, stickers….
  • It might be beneficial to have a Service K-9, if possible
  • Investigate and prepare ahead of time
  • Have a plan in case you get separated, and practice it!
  • Keep your child close (hold hands, or steer the cart, or hang onto the cart)

I hope these tips prove to be helpful and make your summer outings more fun and enjoyable. Happy Travels!!