How to cope when your child has a public meltdown

Take preventive measures, empathise, teach but never walk away when your child is having a meltdown

When her five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son misbehave in the car, Ms Nur Yahya sometimes threatens to stop the vehicle and leave them by the side of the road.

So it struck a chord with her when she read about the recent incident in Japan in which a seven-year-old boy was abandoned by the side of the road by his parents as punishment for throwing stones at cars and people .

The boy was found six days later in a hut in a military exercise area, with no major injuries other than mild dehydration and hypothermia.


The story made worldwide headlines and sparked a debate in Japan about discipline. The boy's father admitted that his punishment was over the top.

Ms Nur, a housewife in her 30s, says she would never act on her threats to her children. "This sort of disciplining will not yield a positive outcome."

Ms Sylvia Huang tries to offer her son Noah, three, something more exciting to look forward to when he does not want to leave the playground. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

  • Tackling tantrums

    What to do if your child misbehaves in public, for instance, if he throws a toy at another child:

    1. Stop him by calmly blocking his hand.

    2. Repeat the rule: "You are not allowed to hurt others."

    3. Model good behaviour by apologising to the other child and parent in front of your child, especially if he is not willing to do so on his own.

    4. Next, take your child to a private space away from others.

    5. If he is crying, wait till his tantrum subsides so he is more receptive to listening to you. In the meantime, do not scold or punish. Calm him down with a hug if he allows you to.

    6. To connect with your child, talk to him at eye level. Help him describe his emotions, for example, "I know you are feeling angry because..."

    7. If he is old enough, reason with him why he cannot throw things at others. Or come up with alternatives, for example, instead of throwing things at others, "Let's throw balls when we go home later".

    8. Think of consequences that specifically address the behaviour you are responding to. For example, if he throws a toy truck at someone, a logical consequence is to keep the truck so that he cannot play with it.

    9. Never placate your child with a lollipop or toy or give in to his demands just so he will stop crying. It will reinforce his negative behaviour.

    •Source: Shu Mei Winstanley, co-founder of Chapter Zero Singapore, and Dr Cecilia Soong, head of counselling programme at the School of Human Development & Social Services at SIM University

So when her children misbehave, instead of punishing them, she gets them to make up for their behaviour by doing a good deed to "erase" their bad deed.

Experts do not recommend walking away as punishment when a child misbehaves in public and it is not just for safety reasons.

Ms Vicky Ho, head of research and development at Focus on the Family Singapore, says the child may interpret walking away as a withdrawal of his parents' love as they physically and emotionally distance themselves from him.

She says: "For a child who is already frustrated and struggling to express himself, this would exasperate him further."

Ms Shu Mei Winstanley, cofounder of parenting organisation and social enterprise Chapter Zero Singapore, says that a young child's brain is not fully developed until the age of three and much of what he does, including having a tantrum, can be attributed to that.

She says: "They have little impulse control and cannot regulate their emotions well, so parents need to be there to help them set boundaries as well as regulate and label their emotions."

Some parents say that taking preventive steps helps to reduce the likelihood of their child acting out in public.

Alumni relations officer Shanmugapriya Paskaran, 37, says she and her husband give their sons, aged five and three, mini "pep talks" before going out, telling them where they are going, what to expect there and how they should behave.

She says: "For instance, if we are going to a party where there will be other kids, we tell them to remember to share and get along well with the other children."

Civil servant Carol Soh, 45, noticed that her daughters, aged 14 and 11, tended to act up in public when they were hungry, bored or sleepy when they were younger.

"So before going out, I would make sure they had eaten enough or had a nap. If it was going to be a long trip, I would take along toys or games."

While she admits there were times when she felt like threatening to walk away from them when they misbehaved, she says: "I know discipline by fear does not help a child learn. A more effective discipline method would be to go to the root of the issue and turn the situation into a teachable moment.

"So, I would just take a deep breath, slow myself down and tell myself to parent calmly."

Marketing manager Sylvia Huang, 31, finds that being empathetic and learning to see things from her child's perspective has been helpful in dealing with her three-year-old son Noah's public meltdowns.

She finds that when she and her husband put themselves in his shoes, they become calmer. "I understand, for instance, why he's unwilling to leave the playground and I ask myself how I can help him cope better. Maybe I can offer him a more exciting thing to look forward to or promise to return another day.

"I find that when I am sincere in empathising with him and not just paying lip service, he tends to snap out of his tantrum faster."

The Day My Son Fell Out Of A Car

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'When a child acts up'. Subscribe