6 Steps to Ending Public Meltdowns, Even If You’ve Already Tried “Everything”
Public meltdowns can be incredibly stressful for parents and children. The added scrutiny of others watching and judging how you handle the situation makes everything worse and is something parents shouldn’t have to deal with. But they do.
Many parents will even avoid family outings like dinner at a restaurant. Or avoid taking their children along for shopping trips and small errands.
A public outing can be unpredictable, there can also be many triggers that cause overstimulation. Things like
Public meltdowns are much worse than a child who is just acting out or throwing a tantrum. They can be unpredictable and involve sudden aggressive behavior. There is often no way to stop it and you just have to ride it out.
However, there are strategies that you can learn to prepare for these events and make them more successful.
I am going to outline how to plan ahead for all public activities and reduce the likelihood of public meltdowns. Be sure to get your free printable planner at the end of the post.
If you’re looking for some proactive techniques to preventing meltdowns in general, read this ultimate guide to preventing meltdowns here. It should give you a good starting point if you struggle with managing meltdowns in general.
Planning Ahead to Avoid Public Meltdowns
Whenever you are taking your kiddo somewhere, it’s important to plan ahead. Children with autism need to know what to expect.
As much as possible, include your child while writing the plan. Have a reward or two in mind before talking to them, but include their ideas too.
Involving your child in planning an outing will make them feel included and as though their opinion is valued. They will also know exactly what to expect and feel like they’ve been given some power over what happens to them.
There are six simple steps to planning an activity outside your home to avoid public meltdowns:
- Choose the location
- Give your child choices
- Plan ahead for interruptions
- Do a trial run
- Give the promised reward
- Assess the plan and make changes, if necessary
Download a copy of the printable
Step 1: Location
Where are you going?
Start out with a situation that will be easy for your child, like visiting a friend or family member, or going for a walk. Using the plan in a simple situation first will increase the chance that your child will be successful.
Helping them be successful in the beginning will raise their confidence. If your child feels confident and successful going into a more challenging outing, it will be easier for them to follow the plan again.
Decide when and where you will talk to your child about the plan. Make sure you choose a time and place where there are few distractions so you both can focus.
Tell them about the situation, and when it will take place. Keep it very simple and easy to understand. Then ask for ways they can help.
“On Tuesday, we are going for a walk at the park. Can you help me plan our walk?”
Step 2: Choices
Allow your child to give input on how they can help or what they will do during the plan, and what the reward will be. Having choices will help your child feel like they’re more in control.
As you make the plan together keep a notepad and write down all of your child’s suggestions even if they aren’t realistic. It’s important that your kiddo feels like you value their input so don’t shoot down any ideas as they suggest them.
Write down some options of your own as well. When you’ve finished brainstorming, decide together what options will work best. For example, when going for a walk in the park your child can help by walking close to you, staying on the path, and keeping their hat on.
Choose things appropriate for the situation, and that you know they can do.
Next, choose some options for the reward when the plan is successful. Choose rewards that can be given immediately. It’s important that your child can associate the reward to following the plan. It could be a sticker, or a small treat like bubble gum, a dollar store toy, or anything the two of you can think of that is motivating. This means it doesn’t necessarily need to be a material item, it could simply be playing a favorite game with you.
Listen to your child’s ideas and guide them to come up with more ideas. Chances are likely they will have ideas that you don’t agree with. This is fine, write them all down and then you can decide together which ideas will work best.
It’s good to have a couple of reward options in case your child becomes bored with the first one. You will be able to change the reward on the fly if you need to, keeping them motivated. Give your child lots of praise for helping write the plan.
“You have so many great ideas”, “I couldn’t have planned this without your help!”
Step 3: Interruptions
It’s important to anticipate what types of interruptions or behaviors you’re likely to face while you’re out so you can plan ahead of time exactly how you will deal with them.
Make a list of minor and major interruptions. When you’ve already anticipated interruptions and behaviors and decided ahead of time how to handle them, it will be easier to stay calm and in control. The situation will be much less stressful for you.
Plus, when you already know what might happen you’ll have a better chance of noticing the signs leading up to public meltdowns sooner and can intervene.
It’s completely normal for kids to forget the plan, or at least forget to follow it. Minor interruptions can be ignored or may only require a gentle reminder.
Use a first-then statement, or remind them of the plan.
“Do you remember our plan?”
“Remember, when we stick to the plan, you get a sticker”.
Using this positive language can help get your kiddo back on track quickly. A simple redirection may also work.
“Come here, let’s count how many squirrels we can find on our walk”
Be sure to give your child lots of positive reinforcement immediately after an interruption when they return to following the plan.
Major interruptions and behaviors will need to be dealt with right away. If your child runs off the path on your walk or they do have a meltdown, you must know exactly how you will react.
You may need to run after them if they run away and lead them back to the path (If running is a concern and your child doesn’t follow the plan, wearing a wrist link could be a possible way to manage the situation).
You may want to plan to remove them from the situation immediately if they do have a public meltdown. You know your child best and are the best person to predict potential major interruptions and plan the best way to handle them.
If you get your child back on track after there’s been a major interruption, continue to be encouraging with positive reinforcement. Public outings aren’t always going to be perfect, but turning things around is a huge success. If this happens your child should still receive their reward for their hard work.
Step 4: Trial
It’s time to try the plan. Before you leave, review the plan and how you are going to deal with interruptions.
Then, remind your child about the plan, and the reward. Make sure they know what is expected of them and that the expectations are realistic. Use the third page of the planner to draw visuals for your child to help them understand what to expect if necessary.
As you execute your plan, give praise and reinforcement to your child often. It’s important to give positive reinforcement at four key times during your outing:
- When the plan starts
- After an interruption
- During the plan when it’s going well
- At the end
Step 5: Reward
When the plan has ended it is time for the reward! Acknowledge your child’s efforts and give the reward even if things didn’t go perfectly (as long as you didn’t have to completely remove them). These outings can be really hard for your child and it can take a lot of work to get through them so it is important to acknowledge their efforts.
Emphasize the positives and encourage your child. If there were a lot of issues or unexpected events, make changes for next time and have additional supports in place, as needed. You can decide on any changes that must be made during step 6.
Tip: Some kids seem to have a hard time staying motivated, even when being reminded of their reward frequently. Try grabbing some dollar store toys and wrapping them up in wrapping paper. It will increase the fun and excitement of getting the reward and boost motivation.
Step 6: Reflection
When the plan is done and you’re home it’s time to sit down and assess the plan, step by step. Ask yourself these questions:
- How well did it work?
- Does anything need to be changed for next time?
- If so, what?
- Take notes next to the steps so you can prepare for next time.
- Did anything unexpected happen that caused upset?
- Were there any unanticipated interruptions that you can plan for next time
Over time you can become more prepared and your child will also be more familiar with the plan. Constantly assess how things went and making changes helps you stay ahead of the game and avoid the same meltdown trigger happening more than once.
Making a plan following these steps, over time, will make public outings more enjoyable for the whole family and reduce the likelihood of public meltdowns. When you enjoy your time out together, everyone will be happier. After your child is familiar with making these plans you may not need to write everything down anymore, but go at your child’s pace.
After some time you may also be able to help them plan for things that will happen when you can’t be there – like while they’re at school or in childcare.
A few months ago I made a plan with my two older kids specifically for eating out at restaurants. We planned it out together and now use it every time we eat out. We change the rewards each time, depending on what they want to work for but the expectations stay the same so my kids always know what I want them to do.
The plan is very simple, and the three ways they help are by sitting on their bums, using their indoor voices, and using their manners.
Anytime we are going out to eat, they know ahead of time. In the car I say “Alright guys, what’s the plan?” and they can recite “sit on my bum, use my indoor voice, use my manners” I will praise them for remembering “Great job guys you remembered the plan!” and then I will ask them about the reward, too “What are we working for today by following the plan?” and they will say whatever reward we decided that day and then we head into the restaurant.
Once inside I do sometimes need to remind them about the plan, but the overall experience is pretty good (especially compared to how it would go before). It’s great that my family can go out and enjoy a meal together, where before it was nearly impossible.
They need the most reminders while waiting for their food. They get impatient and usually start climbing around their seats or talking loudly, or whining for their food. We changed the plan a bit so now they bring a game or toy along with them to keep busy while they wait.
Meltdowns may still happen but it’s rare for us now because my whole family is well versed in this plan and we know what to do if anyone’s behavior starts to escalate.
Remember, don’t expect success overnight. It takes patience and consistency from you, and time and practice from your child to get good at something.
If public outings are a struggle, don’t give up. Continue to use this six-step plan and take your child on short and simple outings to give them opportunities for success.