Promoting Safe and Appropriate Behavior in Public-Part 2: Parenting Strategies That Work
The previous article explored the developmental problems that can occur when children in public are placed on leashes as a substitute for developing safe and appropriate behavior. While there may be a number of seemingly legitimate reasons for parents to use these devices with both typically developing children and those with special needs, leashes should not be considered appropriate long-term solutions. As an alternative, here are some strategies parents can use to help their children develop awareness and appropriate emotional and behavioral regulation in public environments:
- Stay calm – This is a cardinal rule for parents in all situations with children, and it definitely applies here. The more upset and emotional the parent gets when a child is not listening or behaving in public, the more the child will act out and become emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated. Parents need to take a deep breath, keep an even-toned voice, and stay in control of their own emotions and behaviors. If the parent is overly fearful about something dangerous happening to the child, that fear must be addressed prior to taking the child out in public. For parents who experience significant anxiety in these situations, it will be best to have another adult with you until you feel less anxious. Children can sense anxiety and stress in parents, and this causes them to become more emotional as well. Staying calm, cool, and collected regardless of what the child is doing will be essential for making progress.
- Practice – If your child consistently has problems staying with you and behaving appropriately while in stores, then set a goal to practice for a few weeks. Take the child to the store with a very specific goal in mind – to practice staying together, holding hands while walking, or whatever other appropriate behaviors they need to learn. These practice sessions should not involve actually staying at the store to shop. They should be very short trips that you take specifically for the purpose of practicing appropriate behavior with your child. Plan to walk into the store, find one or two things you need to look at or purchase, and then leave. You can expand the length of the trips over time once you and your child are having more success on these outings. It is wise to start practicing in environments that are not overly crowded, and that do not have things (such as toys) that could create additional challenges for you and your child.
- Set and enforce clear expectations – It is essential that your child have a very clear understanding of your expectations while in the store. Talk ahead of time about what will happen, and then consistently stick to that plan. If you tell the child before you get out of the car that s/he needs to hold your hand in the parking lot, then you must adhere to that and not allow running ahead. If the expectation is for her to hold onto the cart while you walk together in the store, then that is what needs to happen. If you tell the child one thing at the start of the trip, but don’t enforce that same thing while in the store, it is very confusing for the child and sets you both up for a negative experience. Likewise, if you tell your child that certain behavior is expected or you will leave the store, you must stick to that as well. The child needs to know that you mean what you say, and that if s/he is unsafe or inappropriate you will both leave right then. Giving multiple chances in these situations only confuses the child, and makes the problem much worse. For children who intentionally misbehave in order to be able to leave the store, you will need to get create some incentives for staying. Offering a small treat or benefit for making it through the entire outing may be helpful (see #4 below).
- Be positive – Be sure to praise your child when s/he makes attempts to behave appropriately. Immediately comment on the positive things s/he is doing, and focus more on the good things s/he is doing as opposed to the bad things. Offer a special treat or other reward for a job well done, but do not use that as a threat or punishment if things don’t go well. The reward should always be focused on the positive, such as “If you hold my hand while we are in the store, then we will stop at the park on the way home.” You do not want to focus on the negative: “If you don’t hold my hand we won’t go to the park on the way home.” This difference in wording is important, and helps reinforce for the child the positive behaviors s/he needs to exhibit. Having a small reward or incentive at the end of the trip for a job well done can be helpful initially; but as the child becomes more comfortable and proficient in these situations, you want to reduce the rewards. Eventually the child needs to be appropriate in these situations whether there is a reward or not!
- Timing is everything – Parents must consider the child’s age and developmental level when planning outings. Many parents overestimate their child’s ability to be out in stores and other public environments for extended periods of time, and expect them to keep it together well beyond their ability to do so. In general, children are not going to do well for hours at a time in multiple stores. Plan ahead to ensure that the outing is an appropriate length for your child to manage, and know when to call it quits if s/he is having difficulties. It is better to keep the trips short and positive than to push the limits of your child’s abilities, and end up with a negative experience. Other issues that require consideration include nap times, how the child’s day has progressed prior to the outing, how well the child slept the night before, whether the child is sick, and other related issues. Even children who typically do very well in public places can struggle when they aren’t feeling well, are tired, or have had a stressful day. Paying attention to these issues can mean the difference between a positive experience and a negative one.
While there are many other challenges and strategies to consider, this list provides a starting point for parents to structure outings with their children in ways that help ensure success for everyone involved. It can certainly be a challenge to teach children, especially those who are young and/or have special needs, how to be safe and appropriate in public places. However, it is necessary for parents to do so if their children are to grow up with an appropriate amount of awareness of people and situations, and the ability to regulate their emotional and behavioral responses in public. This is far less likely to happen when short-term compensations such as child leashes become long-term solutions. When parents feel confident in their ability to help their children develop appropriate skills in this area, children will experience far fewer difficulties; and that will make outings together much more safe and enjoyable for all involved!