What to do when your child is screaming in public

By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA
bSci21 Contributing Writer

“Anytime we take our toddler somewhere new, she freaks out. She cries and tantrums until we end up leaving. She even does this when we take her fun places just for her like children’s museums, plays, or movies. We’d like her to get new experiences but with all the tantrums, we just can’t! What can we do??”

It can be very frustrating to be THAT family with the screaming child in public. It can be embarrassing and make you upset with your daughter. I feel you. I think all parents of toddlers have been in your shoes at some point or another. However, having this happen regularly and at child-focused events is not okay. Let’s talk about a few things you can try.

First of all, you can prepare your daughter ahead of time. There is a specific strategy called priming in which you preview what is coming up to familiarize your child with it. Your daughter can know what to expect at the event by seeing a sneak preview before you go.

For example, if you want to go to the children’s museum, show her photos of the different activities at the museum. See if there are any videos of it online to watch together. Read books about going to the museum (Curious George likes museums and I know other children’s book characters do too!).

Make this priming activity fun and reinforcing to your daughter. Look up things on the computer together about the new shopping mall you want to go to. Find out if there is a play area, look at pictures of it, see what meal options are in the food court.

If your child likes to color, create coloring pages of the grocery store, the library, wherever it is you want to prepare to go. If your child likes music, find or make up a song about the next public outing you have planned. Use their interests to help you prepare them for this new experience.

Another strategy is using a structured positive reinforcement system. Reward your daughter for having appropriate behavior during these new experiences. Make sure your expectations are do-able for your child and that the reinforcers offered are also do-able but also powerful enough to increase the desired behavior.

Examples: For every minute of quiet voice, you get a fruit snack. If you use a quiet voice for 5 minutes, you get to play on mommy’s phone for 2 minutes. If you are calm for 10 minutes, we can leave and get a treat.

Finally, if your child really really doesn’t want to go- is it necessary right now? Prioritize the necessary outings and work on those first. Work on priming for grocery store trips without meltdowns. The circus can wait. Functional skills take the priority here.

What outings are necessary for everyday life? Use priming to familiarize your child ahead of time and then use positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors when on the outing! Once you are successful at this and build some momentum, start adding in the extracurricular activities, one at a time, with some strong positive behavior supports to help your child be successful!

What strategies work for you on public outings?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Schreibman, L., Whalen, C., & Stahmer, A. (2000). The use of video priming to reduce disruptive transition behavior in children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2(1), 3-11.

Wilde, L.D., Koegel, L.K., & Koegel, R.L. (1992). Increasing success in school through priming: A training manual. Santa Barbara: University of California.

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 parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.  You can contact her at [email protected].

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