Setting the Expectations Before You Get Out of the Car

The public meltdown. It is the nightmare of every parent of kids with behavioral issues. The whining, begging, tantrums, cursing, yelling, and the stares and judgment of everyone around – it can make a parent never want to take their child anywhere ever again. 

What can be done? Are there any tools or skills that can help prevent or diffuse these situations before they happen? One method is to set the expectations before you get out of the car. 

Understanding the Whys of Public Behaviors

As parents, perhaps we are just focused on going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or an appointment somewhere before work, making dinner, or some other task. The first time public behaviors happen can be alarming, in addition to being horrifically embarrassing. 

Our kids are well-behaved at home. Why on earth would they freak out when we take them out in public?

There are no easy answers, as it is different for every child, every situation, and even changes on different days. Typically, behaviors are driven by needs that are not being met. 

Sometimes, it could be as simple as having low blood sugar or not enough sleep. After all, how many of us haven’t wanted to throw a public tantrum when we are tired or hungry and not getting what we want? Some of the other reasons a child might act out specifically in public include:

  • Anticipation
  • Overstimulation
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Past traumatic experiences
  • Attention-seeking

When you can understand your child’s “whys,” it is easier to prevent the behaviors by addressing the problem before going out in public. However, if the reasons are unclear, or you cannot adequately address the situation, you may need to use some behavior modification techniques to help the public outing be more successful.

Setting Expectations Before Entering a Public Environment

Prevention is the most effective way to modify behavior. If you can stop the behaviors before they start, then everyone wins the battle. 

One of the best techniques for modifying behaviors is communication. Set very clear expectations before you even get out of the car. You may even want to talk about the expectations before leaving the house, then remind them when you arrive at the destination. 

Some of the expectations you can discuss include:

  • Safety: walking rather than running, staying on level surfaces rather than climbing on things, staying in safe walking areas rather than where cars are driving, not touching or grabbing other people or things, etc. 
  • Behaviors: depending on the venue, this could include keeping voices at a reasonable volume, keeping all clothing on, keeping bodily fluids to themselves, etc. Emphasizing the different acceptable behaviors at a park versus a doctor’s office versus a restaurant, for example, can help them understand your expectations.
  • Purchases: If going to any kind of store, be clear about the purpose and types of things that you will and will not be buying that day. Sometimes, when there are impulsive items they see, you can have them write them down and put them on a wishlist for a future trip. If the purchase is unreasonable, wait until home to discuss that fact.

Being Clear About the Whats, Wheres, and Whens

Just as many kids thrive on knowing what is coming next at school or home, explaining the purposes, places, and order of your destinations, especially when going to multiple places in one trip, can help them to remain calm. 

Letting your child know the purpose of each destination helps them know what to expect, and knowing which order helps them gauge not only what is next but also how much longer they can expect to be in public. 

If there are any unexpected detours, stop to discuss them before making the detour. If they are uncomfortable, then perhaps their good behavior is more important than that extra errand.

Creating Positive Consequences for Good Behavior

One of the follow-up techniques in setting expectations is to acknowledge good behavior. A reward may be appropriate in some situations, such as following a vaccination or other uncomfortable doctor’s visit or enduring a particularly long outing. 

Rewards do not have to be candy or other sugar or material gifts. They can be one-on-one time with you, extra time on their screens, or other preferred activities. The “If…then” principle for negative behaviors also works for positive behaviors. 

Most often, however, praise is the best reward. Kids enjoy meeting the expectations of parents and others, and being told that they were successful is its own reward. By setting expectations in advance and following up with positive consequences, you can diminish the public meltdowns or perhaps eliminate them altogether.

Behaviors often occur because needs are not met or expectations are not in line. When you can set clear expectations for your kids before you even get out of the car, you may be able to prevent behaviors in public places. At Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center, we support parents in learning the best parenting techniques for their situations and families. We offer coaching, parenting workshops, plenty of resources online, and are passionate about helping you and your family to heal. Our Estes Park, Colorado facility specializes in treating kids with substance abuse and other addictions, mental health diagnoses, trauma and PTSD, low self-esteem, anger issues, and more. We also work with parents and families to educate them to heal together as a family. Contact us at (303) 443-3343 to find out if our facility is the right answer for you and your family. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.

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