How to Reduce Public Tantrums

By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Dear Behavior BFF, “If a child starts crying to their mum to have more sweets whilst on a busy train, what should the mum do? As someone who isn’t a parent yet, it’s pretty easy to criticize the mum if they give in and reinforce the crying by giving them more sweets. But practically, considering the number of people on the train staring, what should the mum do?” From a concerned but not judgmental reader in the UK

First of all, I appreciate you qualifying that not being a parent, it’s hard to put yourself in their shoes. We never know what’s going on (setting events) in a family’s day or life, so we should not rush to judgment when we see things in public that make a behavior analyst cringe.

In a perfect world, a parent would have some positive behavior supports in place before getting on that train, subway bus, in the grocery store line, wherever! Here are some ideas for parents to help prevent this problem from happening in the first place.

  1. Teach clear expectations for different environments.  At home, it’s okay to squeal and be loud. In a crowded place, we use a quiet voice. We scream outside. If we are inside, there’s no screaming.
  2. Set clear behavior expectations across environments. We ask nicely for things, we do not cry and scream. When you cry and scream, you do not get ____(whatever they were crying and screaming for)____. If this expectation is set at home and consistently enforced, you can generalize the skill to a crowded public place. Start at home. Provide lots of positive reinforcement for asking nicely for things. Do not provide access to desired things when your child screams and cries. As your child is successful at this, practice it other places you go. Be clear in your expectation and follow through on it. Every single time.
  3. Use the Premack principle. What’s that? It’s also known as Grandma’s rule. First __(do a desired behavior)__, then __(get a reinforcer)__. So in public: “First talk nicely, then you can have _____.” Maybe it’s not the candy that started this incident. But offer something else as a reinforcer for engaging in desired behavior in that situation. “First sit nicely, then you may have a snack.”  Use the language of “First ___, then ____” consistently. Follow through on giving whatever you offer for them then.  Read more about the Premack principle on bSci21 here.
  4. Use a positive reinforcement system. Maybe you need something with a little more structure than a simple “First, then”. You can set a bigger goal of earning x number of stickers to get to pick out a new game on their iPod. Get 10 compliments from mom and you can get a piece of candy. There are apps you can use for reward charts on your phone so that your child can get the token reward throughout the day- no matter where you are! Then when the goal has been met- a bigger reinforcer is given. Learn more about token economies on a previous Behavior BFF post here.

Well those are all great if you’ve put in the time before the incident in public happens. But what options do you have during that moment?

Option 1: Give your kid the candy to get them to be quiet. It might feel like a good solution now for what feels like a lifetime of crying on the train. The huge problem with that is that you’ve reinforced the problem behavior and your child is more likely to cry for candy in public again in the future. 

Option 2: Give your child choices. “Stop screaming, talk nicely, and you may have goldfish or look at my phone.” Give them things that will work to reinforce ending this problem behavior, just don’t give them the candy they are screaming for.

Option 3: Hold your ground and grin and bear it. All parents have been the one with the screaming child at some point or another. It’s not fun but it’s better than reinforcing problem behavior. Don’t give them the candy. Hope that the other passengers on the train are getting off soon. Don’t jeopardize your own child’s learning to make strangers happy. Just know that we’ve all been there.

Work hard on preventing the problem behaviors, reinforcing the desired behaviors, and being consistent. Even when you do all that, there will be rough times when your child makes a scene in public. If you are working hard on teaching appropriate behaviors and reinforcing them, those embarrassing and uncomfortable times should decrease in your world.

Hang in there, mom on the train. Focus on teaching and reinforcing the appropriate behaviors. You can do it!

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at [email protected].

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