Ask Dr. Susan Bartell: When Your Child Acts Out

By Susan Bartell, Psy.D


“I’m a single mom with a daughter who behaves well enough at home, but she certainly knows how to push all my buttons when we’re out in public. If I reprimand her, she screams and cries—and I get those looks: you know the ones: as if I’m an ax murderer. If I don’t I get the other kind of looks for letting her get away with murder. How do I get her to listen?” —Analiese L., Huntsville, AL



First, let me congratulate you on having a really smart child who’s already learned the art of manipulation. She realizes that you become embarrassed in public, so it’s the best place to have a fit because you’ll give her what she wants, or refrain from disciplining her in order to avoid a tantrum. You’ll be comforted to know that this doesn’t mean she’s a ‘bad kid’, but rather that she’s doing normal testing of limits to see how much she can get away with when it comes to ‘bad behavior’. 

Kids test limits with their parents throughout childhood and adolescence, in different ways at different times. It’s your job to be aware of these times and seize them as opportunities to offer your child boundaries that will help her grow emotionally, rather than allowing your child to continue along a wilder, less secure path. This is true even if your child doesn’t seem happy about the limit at the time!

In this situation, the way you respond to your child’s tantrum is critical because it could mean the difference between helping your experimenting child to become well-behaved rather than truly difficult to manage and unpleasant to take out in public. 

Before discussing a plan to help your child behave more appropriately, I’d like to address your concerns about “the looks” you’re getting from other people. Perhaps it’s just plain embarrassing for you. But maybe it’s more. Dig deep and ask yourself why you care so much? Does it remind you of your mom or a teacher criticizing you as a child? Are you a perfectionist who hates doing anything wrong? Whatever the reason, let go of it! You will only truly learn how to manage your child’s behavior when you release your concerns about other people judging you. Unless you’re abusing your child (which you’re not, right!) it doesn’t matter what they think! They don’t have to come home with you and live with your child!

Now to the nuts and bolts. To begin with, since your child behaves well at home, you know she’s capable of it. Therefore you should absolutely expect this behavior in public. Below are six simple steps to gain control over almost any child’s behavior (girl or boy).

  1. Tell your child that beginning right now there will be new rules about her behavior in public that you will take very seriously.
  2. Explain that when you go anywhere (restaurant, store, friend’s house etc.) you expect your child to behave well. If she doesn’t’ behave well you will give her one warning that will be her chance to correct her behavior immediately. If she doesn’t correct it, or if she begins to scream or cry, you will immediately remove her from the activity.
  3. If you need to remove her it will require a consequence—for two reasons. First because she tantrummed and second because she caused you to end the activity in which you were engaged. Tell her that there will be NO SECOND CHANCES! In other words, if you remove her and on the way out she calms down and promises to behave now, do not go back in and ‘try again’. Explain that next time she will be able to try again, but this time she needs to leave and there will be a consequence. While this may be inconvenient for you in the short-run, in the long-run, you’ll have a much better-behaved child.
  4. Consequences need to be very meaningful to your child and will be different for each child. If they are not meaningful a child won’t care about them and they won’t work. Some effective consequences are: earlier bedtime, TV time/computer/video games/cell phones taken away, play-time with friends taken away, favorite activities taken away.
  5. Designing effective consequences and employing them consistently and immediately after a negative behavior, is a critical part of the plan. DO NOT threaten a consequence that you are unwilling or unable to fulfill. For example, don’t tell your child that she will need to go to sleep early on Saturday night if you will be out and you don’t think the babysitter can enforce it. In addition, don’t make consequences too punitive. It is acceptable to take TV away for a day, taking it away for a week or more is too long. It removes TV as leverage for the rest of the week and also makes your child feel hopeless about even trying to improve her behavior.
  6. Each time you’re about to begin an activity remind your child that you expect her to behave well and listen to you. In addition, if your child is cooperative during an activity, including responding to your reprimands without tantrumming, don’t forget to acknowledge this and praise her. Focusing on positive, rather than negative behavior is important–it will shape her positive behavior for the future.



Visit Dr. Susan Bartell’s website.




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