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Managing difficult behaviour when you’re out and about

“I really struggle with getting my 4 year old to leave the park. I give her lots of warnings but when the time comes she refuses to leave. Sometimes she runs away or I end up almost dragging her away which is really embarrassing. It makes me not want to take her there!”

Managing difficult behaviour when you’re out and about is so much harder than when you’re at home! Responding to children’s defiance is especially stressful when people are watching. It’s totally normal if a 4-year-old finds it hard to stop an activity they are really enjoying – but that doesn’t make it any easier when you are feeling watched or judged.

At high stress times, it’s always a good idea to have a plan. You’ll be far less likely to ‘panic parent’ or to lose your cool if you put some time into devising an approach and practising it. You might find it helpful to follow these steps:

Identify the behaviour that is causing you stress. In this case, it sounds like it is finishing play and leaving the park that is the issue.

Identify the behaviour you would like to see instead. For you, it sounds like you’d like a more peaceful and co-operative departure from the park. Visualise exactly what that might look like. E.g., after a couple of clear time warnings (“We are going to leave in 5 minutes, so get ready to finish playing“), you tell your daughter that it’s time to leave, take her hand and she walks alongside you away from the park.

Check this is a realistic expectation. There is no point setting a goal that your child has no hope of reaching. So, just double check that your expectations are appropriate to your child’s age and that you’re not setting them (or you) up to fail. In this case, it wouldn’t be appropriate to expect that your daughter is happy about leaving the park, just that she co-operates.

Set a ground rule. A ground rule is a way of clearly communicating an expectation to a child so that they know what behaviour you are asking from them. Use language that she will understand. You might want to talk about the reason for the rule – for example, “It wasn’t very calm when we left the park today. You ended up crying and I got upset too. It wasn’t nice for either of us. I’d like to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” But make sure you have this conversation in a calm moment, not in the heat of emotion.

Talk about why it’s hard and what might help. Children are fantastic problem-solvers so take time to listen to your child and invite her to help find a solution. Behaviour is always a form of communication and it might be that there is something going on here that you haven’t taken into account.

Practise the new rule. You can do a role play to walk your child through the rule. Pretend you are in the park and it’s time to leave. Go through the motions exactly. Make sure to give lots of praise for getting it right! You could also look out for examples in other areas of daily life where your daughter does co-operate or when she leaves somewhere without a fuss. Bring her attention to these examples and praise her very specifically for those.

Remind about the rule. The next time you go to the park, before you leave the house, remind your daughter about the rule. You could ask her what the rule is to check she remembers it.

Add some extra motivation (if needed). If this change is going to be a bit difficult (or if you identified the need for some extra motivation when you were problem-solving together), arrange a reward for following the rule. Rewards don’t have to be large or cost money. Perhaps you could agree that if your daughter leaves the park the first time she is asked (holding your hand and walking nicely), then you will play a special game together on the way home.

Prompt. If you are giving a 5- or 2-minute warning, briefly remind your daughter about the rule (and also about the reward).

Give a calm instruction. When it is time to leave, go up close to you daughter, hold out your hand with a warm smile on your face and say “It’s time to leave now. Show me how you can do it.

Praise. As soon as your daughter makes even a small move towards co-operating with the new rule, make your smile even bigger and praise her. “Well done for coming with me first time. That’s brilliant!” Follow through with the reward if she has got it right.

Follow up discussion. Whatever happens (whether it went well or badly), have a chat a bit later and briefly talk through what happened. If she got everything right, celebrate together. If she got it half-right, praise her for the bits she got right and discuss how to get it even more right next time. And if it all went pear-shaped? Do some collaborative problem-solving. Perhaps you hadn’t understood what she was finding hard? Perhaps the expectation was too high? If you didn’t have a reward in place, maybe that would help for next time?

Managing children’s difficult behaviour when you’re out and about is one of the toughest challenges parents face. Always remember that other parents are mostly looking on with nothing but sympathy (even if it feels like you are being judged!). And this type of behaviour is simply a sign that your child has not quite mastered a particular skill yet.

Good luck! And let me know how you get on.

Photo of a young black girl in a yellow top crying and holding on to a shopping trolley to illustrate advice for parents on difficult behaviour when you're out and about

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