It’s been a great outing with the kid. He or she saw the elephants and stared wide-eyed at the polar bears. He or she ate snacks, discussed penguins, and posed for the perfect Instagram shot. Now, he or she is standing outside the monkey house, about to see their favorite animal, which was the whole point of this outing. Except, instead of cooing excitedly, he or she is screaming about wanting to go home. This is, unfortunately, the risk parents run when they take little kids on longer outings. This is what happens when kids get tired and stressed.
“Kids are not trying to give you a hard time and often they can’t even tell you why they are cranky, irritable, frustrated, mad, or scared,” says Amanda Williford, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. “Maybe it’s a new place, maybe it’s too loud, maybe it’s too bright. Or maybe as a parent you are pushing the boundaries of the schedule your child is used to.”
So how do you avoid such behavior to make sure big days don’t become big disappointments? It all comes down to following four major steps.
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Prepare for an Outing With a Kid
No matter what your day entails, it should always retain the basic elements of a standard day. That means adhering to regular nap, snack, and meal schedule.
“Being hungry and/or tired is a recipe for a meltdown,” says Holly Schiffrin, author of Balancing the Big Stuff: Finding Happiness in Work, Family, and Life. “It can sometimes be tempting to try to run that one last errand before lunch or nap and the result will be dealing with a tantrum in the checkout line. They just don’t have the same ability to regulate their emotional responses that adults do.”
It’s also important to lay out the day for them and get them excited about all that’s to come. “Even though their expressive language — their ability to talk to you– is just developing, their receptive language, which is their ability to understand language, is often quite good,” she says.
Defining success as dad or mom is important, too. Williford says simply lowering the bar for expectations can be a real emotion saver. Be realistic about what’s possible, whether it’s an errand or a fun trip for them.
Evaluating the Kid’s Meltdown
When a meltdown starts, the first reaction shouldn’t be to save the rest of the planned trip out. The first step should be to stop and assess the situation.
“If the outing was for the child — like a trip to the park, the zoo, a children’s museum, children’s library — and they have had enough, it’s time go,” Williford says. “Don’t stay longer because of the effort that you put into getting ready for this outing.” This means managing your emotions. For example, if you packed and prepared for 8 hours but your toddler is done after 90 minutes, don’t be bummed. You need to understand, per Williford, that 90 minutes is actually a really long time for a 2-year-old.
If your trip needs to be driven to completion, however, it’s time to attempt a save.
Taking a Post-Tantrum Break
“Get a sip of water, change a diaper, give a hug, read a little book, or play a little game,” Williford says. “Is there a way you can give your toddler a quick reprieve and then maybe they ‘get back at’ whatever the outing is?”
It’s also important to realize your reaction to the situation may also dictate its outcome, Schiffrin says: “It’s crucial for parents to stay calm,” she says. “If parents are getting upset and frustrated, their kids are going to feed off of that emotion, which will ramp things up. It’s not easy because sometimes kids are frustrating, but responding in a calm manner might de-escalate the situation.”
Another good tactic: Take a minute to sit and snuggle. Hold them. Once they calm down, ask if they want to do some of the fun things in the afternoon. Leading questions like, “Boy, I wonder what those monkeys are doing. I bet they’re silly. Should we find out?” may spark a better reaction than: Would you like to see monkeys or go home?
Deciding to Cut and Run
Unfortunately, it’s just not possible to save the situation, and you have to be okay with that. “Sometimes you’re really expecting too much from a young child,” Schiffrin says. Waving the white flag isn’t losing. It’s just part of being a parent.