What to Do When Your Screaming Kid Makes a Scene in Public

Noisy kids can be irritating, but a parent’s relationship with their child is more important than other people’s judgments.

by Matthew Utley

Dealing with a screaming kid has a way of destroying patience. It’s even worse in public, when parents have to contend with judgmental looks from the people around them. But kids don’t care about optics. Your first instinct may be to clap your hand over the kid’s mouth, scream back, or run away. But those options are neither effective nor productive. You are likely teaching your child that they cannot, in fact, take care of themselves, which will complicate things later on.

“First, it sends the message that the child is incapable of quieting down on their own and requires adult intervention,” says Dr. Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, a board-certified behavior analyst. “Second, it sends a message that it is okay for bigger, stronger people to physically enforce their will on younger, smaller people. Third, children imitate and learn from observing their parents’ behavior.”

This last point is particularly chilling. March encourages parents to consider the consequences of a child mimicking clasping a hand over another child’s mouth. At best, that behavior causes problems at preschool. At worst, it seriously harms a baby sibling.

So how, then, should parents quiet down a screaming kid? Marsh suggests four steps, bearing the somewhat-unwieldy name of the Four Ss: Stop, Squat, Shhh, and Sing.

The Four S’s can be applied anywhere, but if a parent can remove the child from a stressful situation, they should do it. “Leave the movie or church service or party and just walk around calmly holding your child while they calm down,” advises Marsh. “If you can’t leave, such as on an airplane, hold your child in a comforting position with your mouth near their ear and whisper-sing, slowly and calmly, while moving in whatever way they find comforting. They need to feel loved and comforted, not squashed or smooshed. The other people on the airplane have heard a child cry before, and they will survive.”

A parent’s first obligation is to their child, after all, and not to the sensitivities of the strangers around them. Some may think this spoils a child, but there’s a vast gulf between indulging a kid’s every whim and providing basic parental love and empathy. A child who trusts their parents is more likely to calm down, in any case.

Four Step to Quieting Down a Kid Screaming

  • Stop: Parents should stop what they’re doing and pay attention to their child. Are they excited? Upset? Hungry? In pain?
  • Squat: When parents get down to their child’s level and look them in the eye, it lets the kid feel appreciated and helps the parents assess the situation. It might be an easy fix.
  • Shhh: Parents need to smile, slow down and lower their voice, even to whisper. It not only models behavior for the child, but they may quiet down just so they can hear what is said.
  • Sing: if they are inconsolable, parents can try singing quietly. A familiar song is soothing on a visceral level.

But even though parents know this rationally, there are still moments when they are pushed to their limits. If they’ve covered their child’s mouth and regret it, the best thing they can do, according to Marsh, is to tell the truth. Pretending it didn’t happen leaves the child to process it by themselves.

“When everyone is calm and some time has passed, tell your child that you remember putting your hand over their mouth when they were too noisy and it was important to be quiet,” suggests Marsh. “Then tell them that you don’t like doing that, and they probably don’t like it either. You’d rather find a different way if they need help quieting down. If they’re old enough, ask them what they think will help.”

Once parent and child have thought of a way to help the kid manage their behavior, they should practice it. The more they practice when things are calm, the more familiar it will feel when things aren’t. Whatever happens, parents need to approach their role with charity and kindness – for their children, and themselves.