Setting Limits Away From Home

Strategies for giving successful consequences in public

As the Michigan weather warms families come out of their home cocoons and begin to enjoy activities outdoors. Whether it’s a vacation or a road trip Up North or a short day jot to a metropark or Detroit Zoo, parents are all too familiar with the dilemmas of addressing misbehavior in public. Interactions can be filled with embarrassment, avoidance, and anxiety about what is appropriate. Children may be aware that their parents are susceptible to these feelings and capitalize on that vulnerability. Parents and children can create good habits to make experiences away from home enjoyable for everyone.

Start small and positive. Parents can set their children up for success by creating easy-to-remember expectations before leaving home. Make a list of five specific guidelines. More than five is hard for children to remember and even harder for parents to keep track of. It’s okay to have a different set of guidelines for each child in your family as they may have different strengths and weaknesses or levels of development. Think in the affirmative. Avoid statements like “Do not run around the swimming pool” or “No running ahead of me.” Rather, switch these to very specific positive statements such as “Walk like this [with demonstration] around the swimming pool” or “Stay within finger-tip reach of me at all times.” Then explain and practice. Use Mary Poppins’ adage “a spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down” and buddy up the good with the bad. Say to your child “I know we are so excited about going to the birthday party at the wave pool today. You had excellent behavior at the last birthday party but I know it can still be tough for you to follow swimming pool rules. So I’ve created a plan for us and we are going to practice right now.”

Just as the best defense is a good offense, reinforcing positive behavior is the best way to avoid even having to administer consequences. Take your five expectations that you have explained to and practiced with your child and create a reward system. Depending on your child’s specific behavioral needs break the day into small increments. Let your child know you will be observing him throughout the day on those five expectations you have set. Such as a trip to the zoo may last 2 hours. Tell your child every 10 minutes you are going to be watching your child and if she follows those five expectations she will earn one Silly Band [or any token or point the parent can have on hand] each set of 10 minutes. When the trip is over if she has at least nine silly bands she can exchange them for a reward. Rewards can be small like an ice cream treat or a choice from a prize bin or 15 minutes extra time on the computer.  Do not set the reward for 100% success. If a child has completed the day with about seventy-five percent good behavior they have done excellent. In this case nine silly bandz is seventy-five percent of the total twelve possible. For certain children, such as those with ADHD, ten minutes may be too long and must be shortened accordingly. It may be important to first practice on small trips such as to the library to check out a book, or to the store to pick up a few items like just milk and bread before using on longer activities.

Naturally, even with the best laid plans, there will be times when consequences must be given. As with rewards, it is important for parents to have an understanding of the activity and of their child’s needs before heading out. Make a list of five “deal breakers,” i.e. situations that would merit automatic consequences such as not following directions or park rules, hitting other children, etc. Look up websites for online maps of the facility or do a drive-by to identify some good time-out areas. You may even consider heading back to the car as a safe place for time out. Get the support of other adults in advance such as a spouse, friend, or older child to supervise your other kids while you are addressing the behavior issue. Parents will often avoid giving necessary consequences because they “do not want to ruin the fun for every one else.” This can be prevented by securing a plan in advance. Just like giving rewards, explain and practice consequences with your child. You may say “You did such an excellent job earning Silly Bandz at the birthday party but it can be difficult to follow directions at the zoo. I want to practice what we will do if we need to use time-out on our trip to the zoo.” Time outs should last five to ten minutes and when they are done they’re done. Meaning, administer the time-out but do not take away the rewards for other successful parts of the day. Try saying “You did not earn a band for this ten minute block but there are still four more opportunities before we leave and I know you can do it!” Parents have a hard time giving rewards after dealing with a behavioral issue but this is important because you want your child to work hard toward success for the rest of the day.

Because giving consequences in public causes a lot of stress for parents its important for you to set your self up for success too. Stay calm, be confident in your plan, and have something to do during those uncomfortable time-out moments. Having a book in your bag, an mp3 player with music you enjoy, or playing “Angry Birds” on your smart phone are good ways to avoid engaging in an argument during time out and to help keep yourself calm so you can resume the rest of the fun day with your family.

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