Handling Public Meltdowns

Maybe they are hangry, or tired, or off schedule, or wanting something you refuse to give into. Whatever the reason may be: Your child is on the verge of a meltdown. You can see it in their face and hear it in their voice, as you start to dread what you know is about to happen next. The kicking. The screaming. The running. The flailing. As parents, most of us (if not all) have been there before. And all of us who have been there can most definitely say that public meltdowns are no fun.  

So what do you do when your child is having a meltdown in public? Here are some things to try the next time you find yourself facing, or in the middle of, the dreaded meltdown.  

Prevention Strategies:  

Be specific about what is about to happen. 

Some children do not handle changes in the schedule very well, and this can lead to meltdowns. While you can’t predict everything that will happen while you are out and about, try walking your child through what to expect before you reach your destination. You can even talk about some of the unexpected things you may encounter on your trip, such as crowds, long lines, etc.  

Give your child a five-minute warning before you are going to leave. 

Everyone likes a little head’s up, and the same goes for our children. Instead of just yelling, “It’s time to go!” consider giving your child some warning time. For some, just a couple of minutes is fine, and others may want more of a head’s up. If time causes anxiety for your child, try giving them something concrete they can do with their time left, such as going down the slide two more times, or pumping their legs 10 more times on the swing.  

Pay attention to your child’s triggers and try to avoid those situations, if possible. 

If you know your child gets overstimulated easily, or doesn’t do well in crowded places, consider running your errands at off-times when there won’t be as many people. Or, if you are wanting to try something new, think about checking it out prior to taking your child to see if the environment is suitable for them. Also, when planning outings, check to see if the venue has sensory-friendly hours or experiences for you to try. Lastly, if your child doesn’t do well when hungry or tired, be sure they are well rested and fed before heading out the door. Bringing a snack and some water along for the ride is never a bad idea, too.  

Reinforce positive behaviors. 

When your child does well in public, or with something that is new or challenging for them, acknowledge and reward that behavior. 

We are in a full meltdown. Now what?  

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try or prepare for the outing, meltdowns still occur. So now what? For some children, ignoring works best. This can be uncomfortable because others are around, but hopefully you will receive more sympathetic looks and understanding responses than looks of disapproval.  

Another strategy is to let your child know you will be leaving immediately. This can be hard if you are in the middle of an errand, but sometimes it is necessary. You may have to pick up your child and take them out of the place where the meltdown is occurring.  

Another option during a meltdown is to offer some kind of distraction. If you can see your child is about to melt down and you can recognize the trigger, redirecting their attention to something else can help.  

Like everything in parenting, there is no clear cut answer. Every child is different. Every family is different. And every situation is different. The same thing isn’t going to work for every child, but with some trial and error, hopefully you can figure out what works best when your child is on the verge of melting down. And remember, meltdowns don’t make you a bad parent — they are simply a part of parenting that most of us have to deal with at some point.  


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