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What Do I Do When My Kid Acts Like a Nightmare in Public?

According to a nanny, a flight attendant and a father of three, among others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

My kid doesn’t like to wait. I know what you’re thinking: Duh, no kid likes to wait. But I’m telling you, as a dad of a special needs kid, my son really, really doesn’t like to wait.

It happens a lot in the line at the grocery store when he’ll suddenly get frustrated and lose his shit. I can’t very well return all of the food and waste the last two hours, so I’ll calmly try to talk him down or distract him. But sometimes he’s just completely inconsolable, and I’ll need to discipline him a bit. For example, if in his frustration he hits my wife, I immediately pick him up from the cart and give him a time out on the bench at the grocery store. He’ll scream and cry as I stand beside him until his minute is up.

In my mind, I’m trying to reinforce our same rules at home. I’m not embarrassed by my kid, so if some judgemental assholes want to give me dirty looks as my son sits crying on a bench, I say that’s their problem. But as much as I like to pretend those people don’t matter, sometimes their ire gets to me, and I wonder if I’m doing the right thing.

And then I wonder about more confining situations. Like what’s going to happen when my son gets on an airplane for the first time this summer? Will it be like that story about a kid screaming for eight hours on a Lufthansa flight as people disgustingly tweeted out how the child was “demonic” and that the parent was horrible because she supposedly “did nothing”? Will he not only have to endure the difficulty of a flight, but also the judgement of the ignorant people around us?

Please, tell me, what’s the right way to discipline my kid if they’re causing mayhem in public?

The Expert Advice

Ruka Curate, a nanny of 14 years from Tiny Treasures Nanny Agency: It’s all about creating an atmosphere that’s calming. Try to get them one-on-one and work to find a way to calm them immediately. For me, I would get down and explain to them the situation in calm, firm tones, but not in a way that’s punitive. Kids always feel like you’re not listening to them, so make clear that you are — if they don’t think you’re listening, they’re going to act out even more. You have to be patient enough to take the time, listen to them and even repeat back some of the things they are saying.

Kayla, special education teacher: It truly depends on the child and their individual needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when you are dealing with special needs children — that’s why special needs kids come with individualized behavior plans. For some, you have to let them ride out the storm — they have to break down before you can get to them, because in order for discipline to be effective, they have to be calm.

Sometimes, being in public can be overstimulating for a child, or certain fabrics will make them feel uncomfortable and cause a negative reaction. Sometimes they’ll have a meltdown, and you have to leave the store and get out of that environment. Removing the child can be effective because you need to figure out what’s going on, why they’re acting this way and what you can do to help them. Let them know that it’s okay to be mad or frustrated or angry, because they’re normal emotions that we feel as adults. Children should never be shamed for having these emotions.

If you can’t remove the child from the environment, it can be tougher. In those situations, I recommend trying to get down on their level. Children often feel tiny and the world around them feels huge. Bringing yourself down to their level and trying to get them to take deep breaths or look you in the eye can help center them. This way they’ll know that you’re hearing them and understanding them, and this will help to calm them down.

Beth Blair, flight attendant manager: [When it comes to flying with your kids], parents who ensure that they’re equipped with the proper entertainment and necessities (like snacks and drinks) have the most successful flights. Screaming and yelling is the most ineffective way to deal with upset children on an airplane — usually it only increases the child’s negative reaction and triggers other children to cry. Parents who expect the plane itself to be the entertainment are asking for trouble: Children allowed to kick seat backs, ding the flight attendant call button, run the aisles or jump on the seats may find themselves in conflict with the cabin crew and other passengers. The most important thing is for parents to know their children and what type of attention span they have, and to ensure they’re equipped to handle the flight, plus any unexpected delays.

Matt Brescia, father of three: So, if we’re at a restaurant and two of the kids are arguing with each other, normally there’d be a warning. That warning is followed by a second warning, during which we let them know that, if it happens again, there will be a consequence. The consequence is usually that we reduce their video game time later that day or the following day.

For the little one, we’ll try to ask her to be quiet or distract her or give her a time out if she’s in the mall or at a restaurant. If she’s not listening, usually a one-minute or 30-second timeout will do it. Wherever we are, we’ll just plop her down and give her a time out.

It doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes you’ll get judgemental looks from people if you do that in public, but we know that what we’re doing is part of our overall plan. I’d say that the most important thing is to just keep with what your plan is at home and have a translation of that for when you’re in public, one that’s consistent enough that your kids understand that the same rules apply. If you start giving them leeway on things while you’re out, it’s only going to make it harder when you get back home.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: As a parent, you have to decide what discipline is. Discipline isn’t punishment: To me, discipline is helping a child understand. It’s the “how to” script for when you’re in a grocery store, or in a restaurant, etc.

I work a lot with autistic children, and to work with them, you have to let them know ahead of time what they can anticipate. So you might say, “If the sounds are really loud, put your headphones on.” You can give them a fidget spinner before you enter a grocery store, and they can focus on that. What fidget spinners do for autistic children is they help them focus back in on themselves and tune out all of the other feelings, emotions, sights and sounds. Give them a job to do as well — have them help you pick out apples, for example.

There’s also a time that you can firmly — not meanly — say “No.” Yes, it’ll make them melt down, but it’s important to learn that. Because, at some time in their life, they’re going to have to say no to somebody else, and they need to know that it works. Like when a kid hits me in a session, I have no problem saying, “No, you may not hit me. You can show me or tell me what’s the problem, but you may not hit me.” For the most part, that firm voice stops them.

What you don’t want to do is scream, yell and howl at your child. That isn’t going to help them, it’s only going to add chaos. This is a quote by [feminist author and activist] L.R. Knost that I absolutely love: “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to show our calm, not join their chaos.”