Most parents have times when their child is yelling, screaming, and making so much noise that they don’t know what to do. It’s hard as a parent to be out in public when your child is having a meltdown. You might worry that others are judging your child, or your parenting skills. Some parents have even asked if it’s okay to put their hand gently but firmly over their child’s mouth to stifle the noise, which I believe is a bad idea. (See Matthew Uttley’s article in Fatherly.com where he quoted my two cents about this: https://www.fatherly.com/parenting/make-kid-quiet/ )
So, how to get a child to quiet down when they’re way too loud? Just remember SSSH: STOP, STOOP, SING and HUG:
First, stop whatever you are doing, put down your phone, and pay attention to your child. This is triage. What kind of noise are they making? Happy squeals that are fine but just a bit too loud for the setting? Were they whining because they were tired or hungry and now it’s escalated to screaming because the whining was ignored? Are they in pain or danger, or being bullied or hurt by a bigger child? Whatever the issue, when your child is screaming it’s time to come to the rescue. Kids need to know that if they are out of their depth, someone will protect them – and that someone is you.
Now, go to your child and stoop, kneel, or sit down so you are at their eye level. Look them in the eye. When you figure out what is wrong, it may be an easy fix – feed them, change them, put them down for a nap, or remove them from a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. Speak to them in a very quiet voice, slowly, modeling the calm you want them to demonstrate. Whisper if you need to. Smile and show them a kind face, so they can see you are not angry with them, you are there to help. They may quiet down simply because they can’t hear you when you whisper.
If their crying has escalated to the point that they are unable to calm themselves down even when you are speaking to them, try singing. A familiar song often has the power to break the crying or screaming pattern. Maybe you two have a favorite song that you love to sing together at bedtime, or while playing and having fun together. Sing it now, quietly, to help your child switch gears. Many use this Daniel Tiger song, written by Fred Rogers: “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.” Then hold your hand out, palm down, and slowly lower it while counting, “1, 2, 3, 4.”
Hugs without words work wonders. A loving hug can help calm down an upset child, but remember that every child is different, with different sensory needs and preferences. Some kids need a long, firm, “squeezy” hug to help them calm down. For others, having your arms draped very gently around them is better than a squeeze. Others prefer no arms at all, but to press forehead-to-forehead with you. Someone else might not want any physical contact when they are too upset, but may need you to stay very close by, being very still and quiet in a “no-hug hug.” (This means no talking, no touching, and no fidgeting or restless movement.) Then they can gradually respond to and imitate your calmness. Whatever kind of hug or non-hug works best for your child, this is not a time for talking about whatever happened. This is just a time to non-verbally demonstrate your unconditional love and support.
Much later you may be able to talk about what happened, and make a plan so that it might not need to happen again in the future. If they are not yet old enough to participate in this kind of planning session, you might need to make your own plan as a parent. Do you need to make sure that you always have healthy snacks and water packed when you go out? Do you need to plan ahead to curtain your errands to get your child home by naptime even if it means putting off something you had planned to do? Do you need to put down your phone when you take your child to the park or playground, and actually watch them play, offering encouragement and a loving audience as well as early troubleshooting if there is a possibility of bullying or dangerous play? It is up to us as parents to try to create situations where the loud tantrum is not necessary for our child to communicate their needs to us.
If your child is old enough to discuss what happened, ask them what they think will help next time they get upset. If they find the Daniel Tiger song helpful, you can find it on YouTube and watch it together, singing along, when they’re not upset. If they sometimes need to get out of a stressful social situation, but they can’t easily express that need in the moment, you can plan an exit strategy. Consider coming up with a hand signal, such as the T for Time Out, or a secret safe word. Then watch for the signal, and be prepared to immediately intervene and get them out of the situation. This is a case where you need to be the bad guy, saying, “I’m sorry, but something has come up and I need to go now, so we’ll have to end the play date early.” Then your child may save face and express regret, while secretly relieved that they are able to escape.
Whatever plan you two choose to help your child manage their own behavior next time, practice it. You might pretend a doll or stuffed toy is being too loud. First you model helping the toy calm down, then let your child be the adult with the toy. Then you two can practice together, switching roles. The more you practice, and the more fun you have while practicing, the easier and more familiar it will be later when you need to use the strategy in a more stressful situation.
It’s not easy to deal with public tantrums, and parents can feel judged and embarrassed. But the meltdown is happening to your child, not to you. It is usually out of their control, and they are not doing it on purpose to ruin your outing or make you look bad in front of others. Advance planning, calm responding, and SSSH (Stop, Stoop, Sing and Hug) can go a long way in handling a challenging situation. At the end of the day, your relationship with your child, and their ability to learn to manage their own behavior, is more important than other people’s judgments.