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Parenting blog

A blog for parents with effective techniques based on developmental psychology. 

Disciplining children in public

Sara Zaidi

Occasionally feeling embarrassed by something your child does or says is as much part of being a parent as feeling proud of their achievements. Often this feeling is an emotional reaction to some imagined form of judgment; a public emotion in relation to feeling awkward, exposed or having a sense of failure. However, if your child is having a hard time it’s important to focus on what he or she may need from you rather than on your own feelings or the perceptions of those around you.

A common mistake parents make is having their child apologize for his or her behavior. It may seem like the natural response but it doesn’t explain to the child why they were wrong. Instead, pointing out that they may have hurt someone (physically or emotionally) and having them correct that by making the person feel better teaches empathy. You can decide together what might be an appropriate way to make it up to the other person- give a hug, kiss the injured spot, share a favorite toy or take an extra turn. Once your child sees that the person they hurt isn’t upset anymore it will be easier for them to offer an apology.

The outcome of reprimanding a child in public often depends on the way in which it is handled. A tense situation can be resolved more quickly if the feelings of both parties involved in the conflict are acknowledged first, helping them recognize that there is no bias. Children are also more open to listening to what is being said if they are spoken to at eye level; an adult towering over them can be intimidating and such fear causes them to shut down.

Chastising children in front of others can worsen the situation (besides affecting their self-esteem). It might be better to separate and distract the child quickly and then address it when you’re home. Or, speak to him or her quietly, away from their friends so they don’t feel humiliated. If they feel embarrassed in front of others they will try to reclaim control by acting out or continuing to repeat the initial offense.

Making a plan with consequences that have been agreed upon before leaving the house can be preemptive. However, children often forget what they had agreed to earlier, especially when they are with their friends or otherwise excited. They need to be reminded of the rules that have been outlined and the measures that will be taken if they don’t comply, a warning should be given next, and finally, followed through. Implementing consequences firmly but gently is imperative even though you may be angry or frustrated with them. Children model behavior; thus it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate the difference between “feeling angry” versus “acting angry”.

Ultimately, children do what they see and if remaining calm in aggravating situations is what we expect of them then we need to practice that ourselves, as parents.