Meltdowns & Anger

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Public

If your child is prone to public meltdowns, use these strategies to help her keep her cool — and learn tools for better behavior.

Child with ADHD having a public meltdown or temper tantrum
Child with ADHD having a public meltdown or temper tantrum

Small children do not know how to behave in public — that is why Raffi concerts exist. With a quirky child, you have to take it slowly and carefully. Ordinary child-friendly activities can prove unfriendly or challenging, and a child’s reactions to them can attract attention and censure, even in places where other childish misbehavior is going on all around you. The feeling that other people are judging you and your child hangs over many parents.

To give you the courage to venture out again, we offer strategies for coping in public. But first, a few pieces of advice are:

THINK ABOUT WHY YOU ARE DOING WHATEVER YOU ARE DOING. Are you taking your child to The Nutcracker because she loves music or watches, enthralled, when there are ballet dancers on TV — or are you taking her because it’s always been your fantasy to dress her up in a velvet dress and dream the Sugarplum Fairy dream together? Your chances of success in public are much higher if your child has expressed interest in being where you’re going.

REHEARSE A SCENARIO WITH YOUR CHILD. This allows you to think ahead about what may be tricky moments — loud noises, tight crowd scenes, scary sights — and it also helps your child understand exactly what is going to happen. You’re probably going to have to rehearse every time you go out, because going over the scenario will be reassuring to your child.

KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Nothing sticks in the memory of most parents like the memory of a public disaster. You need a few good friends who can listen to your stories and who won’t respond with accounts of their own perfect children.

[Free Guide: 10 Ways to Neutralize Your Child’s Anger]

Going Out to Eat

Start slow with restaurants. Go during the hours when things aren’t too busy; go to places that aren’t offering a hushed, romantic atmosphere. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice good food. There are fabulous casual restaurants everywhere these days.

Rehearse with your child the mechanics of a restaurant meal: We’ll arrive, we’ll park, we’ll sit down at a table, someone will come and give us menus, we’ll choose our food, you’ll tell me what you want to eat, someone will come to take our order, right through to paying the bill.

If your quirky child will eat only three things, pack those three items and bring them along. Confide in a server, beg an extra plate, and order plenty of food for those of you who are eating.

Going to the Movies

A trip to the movies will be easier for the quirky kid who knows exactly what to expect, from the concession stand to the coming attractions to the credits to the movie itself. For most kids, you will be better off going to movies that are known quantities, rather than hoping they will be pleasantly surprised by movies they don’t know. You don’t want to deal with the consequences of a too-disturbing scene, and you don’t want your child asking loud, persistent questions throughout the movie.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children]

One child’s favorite movie is another child’s screaming trauma. Learn as much as you can about the movie before you go, and tell your child what is going to happen, step by step.

For kids who have sensory integration problems, earplugs can make the difference between pleasure and pain at the movies.

If you have other children, being ready to make a getaway often means having two adults along. In case of an emergency, one can take the unwilling child to the lobby of the theater without ruining the treat for the rest of the kids.

When you go out in public with quirky kids, you may have to deal with officious strangers. Try not to be rude to these people, but remember that you owe them no explanations and no information, only a polite apology if your child has in any way intruded on them.

[Meltdowns Happen: 7 Healthy Ways to Respond]

From Quirky Kids, by Perri Klass, M.D., and Eileen Costello, M.D. Copyright © 2003, by Perri Klass and Eileen Costello. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.