Some concerns that parents have seem simple but are actually a bit more complex than they appear. One such issue, according to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, is the very common question about what to do when a child frequently cries in public.
Dr. Boney recounts a recent experience while at a restaurant and eating with a friend. Nearby was a father with what appeared to be a two-year-old that was screaming and crying. The father was trying to do everything to comfort the child. He was holding it and trying to have a full-blown conversation. Nothing seemed to work, and, if anything, the child only screamed louder as the attention from everyone in the dining room became focused on it. When Dr. Boney’s friend asked him what he would recommend in a situation like this, his immediate response was to prevent it from happening in the first place.
To clarify, these recommendations for controlling crying in public are not for babies, whose primary form of communication is through crying. However, once a child has reached one-and-a-half or two and they can talk, it’s time to recognize that these are conditioning opportunities and, in this particular one, prevention is the key.
Prevent or Reduce Crying in Public
Read your child. Know your child’s mood. If your child is in a bad mood, you know that the added stress of being in public is going to result in crying and, quite likely, screaming and tantrums. It is extremely important to reduce those opportunities. Remember parents, everything you do with or to your child is a conditioning process. So, if you constantly bring your child to public places when they are upset, moody or having a bad day and they constantly have meltdowns, you are training and conditioning them that that’s what they are supposed to do when they go out in public.
Limit the opportunities for your child to have a crying meltdown in public and practice for these experiences. Start small with quick trips to the mall or the grocery store. Even a quick in and out at the convenience store is good practice. Make sure that they are developing the following essential skills:
- Able to follow directions and when they are told to do something they generally follow that direction
- Able to stay close and not wander or run off, which is a very dangerous habit to get into out in public
- Able to accept “no”. If you tell your child “no”, they should be able to have a decent reaction rather than a public meltdown
- Able to accept removals. If your child picks something up and asks for it, you should be able to say “no” and keep going without a big blowup
- Able to transition between aisles and items. Children need to be able to let go of things and transition pretty smoothly and easily. Transitioning back to the car and to another location is also important.
These are all skills that your child needs in order to be able to go out into public and not have these crying fits. If these skills are not present, maybe the child is just not old enough or maybe you haven’t practiced enough for them to be ready to frequently go out into public places.
If your child cries at every outing, this is your first indicator to start smaller and reduce the frequency and duration of these trips. Practice at home and then remember to limit your reaction. Limit your emotions and your attention. Limit your words and eye contact with them. If crying and throwing tantrums are able to evoke a consistent response from you, some sort of attention, that basically teaches the child that they can get a wanted response from you with this kind of behavior.
Very important that you understand that you need to quickly figure out what it is your child wants and that you have about 10 seconds to do so. This is because, in a public place, even if you aren’t giving your child attention for crying, other people will. Even being reinforced extraneously by outsiders means that the behavior is still likely to occur in that environment.
Beyond 10 seconds, your only option is to immediately remove the child to the closest, quietest place with the least amount of attention available. What you are trying to do is to make the behavior as non-valuable as possible and prevent any form of reinforcement. Make sure the child feels safe and knows that you are not angry but give the least amount of attention while the crying continues. Briefly tell them that you love them and want to help but you need for them to calm down and use their words to tell you what it is that they want.
Once the child begins calming down, make sure you notice and praise them for that. As soon as they start to give you the behavior that deserves reinforcement be right there with all of the attention that they could want. You always get the behavior that you reinforce.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about your child crying in public or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.