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Staying sane when you’re out and about

Today I’m thinking about ways to have a positive experience when you go out somewhere with your child.

This blog may seem to be more about parenting than children’s language development, but the ideas I’m suggesting all boil down to one thing – communication. Almost every aspect of a child’s development is a direct result of communication, and the interaction between parents and their child: how they learn about the world around them, learn to use words, and their behaviour. So the following are suggestions about how we can capitalise on those communication skills in order to reduce the likelihood of your child throwing a wobbly at the shops.

  1. Prepare your child for going out.

Prepare them verbally by telling them in advance that you’re going out. Some children will benefit from a 30 minute warning, then a 15 minute and a 5 minute reminder. Others are fine with just a 5 minute heads up. Get down at their level, look them in the eye, and briefly explain what will happen and what you expect from them. This might be something like “We’re going to the shops soon to buy food for dinner. I need you to walk with me and the trolley. We can’t get any chocolate/chips/toys today”. Give them another quick reminder of this when you arrive at the shops.

Prepare your child physically by making sure they’ve been to the toilet and had something to eat. A child who has just eaten will be less likely to demand food once they’re at the shops, however it can be helpful to have a snack with you in your bag in case they suddenly develop an appetite despite having just eaten lunch.

This preparation time also allows your child to tie up any loose ends with what they had been doing, whether that’s tucking their teddy into bed, adding the finishing touch to the roof of their Lego house, or changing Barbie’s clothes from her Princess outfit to her riding attire. Children often don’t have much say in what happens during their day, so be mindful that they may not like being suddenly whisked off to the shops when they’re in the middle of something. Treating them with dignity and respect by communicating your intentions and needs and giving them time to get ready will help get your trip off to the right start.

  1. Bring snacks and toys from home with you.

Remember that being at the shops is often very boring for kids. It can be helpful to rotate your child’s toys so the same ones aren’t out all the time. This keeps them fresh and interesting when your child sees them again. Bringing toys that have been been put away recently may keep your child more interested for longer, making it less likely that they’ll beg you for other treats. Just be wary of bringing lots of different toys with you – if they get lost while at the shops you might have a whole different battle on your hands.

  1. Treat them.

We all treat ourselves sometimes. I’ve certainly been known to get the odd Caramello Koala (giant variety of course) every once in a while, even if I do hide the wrapper from my husband. So we can’t really be surprised that children (who have much less self control, even than me) often beg for treats while we’re out. And if it’s good enough for us, it should be good enough for them. Do you always say “no” when your kids ask for something special when you’re out? If so, do you ever give in and end up buying it for them anyway? Think about what message that will send to your child. They will learn that “Mummy will buy me what I want as long as pester her for it. And if she says ‘no’ next time, I’ll just keep pestering her for even longer until she gives in”. If you say one thing but do another, you end up making it much harder for yourself next time, and your child will learn that they have to start throwing themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming and crying in order to get their way.

Instead, be consistent in your communication. If you really don’t want to buy them anything then just say no. You might say “No, not this time”. If your child is old enough you can give them a brief reason such as “Not this time; you had lots of lollies at the party yesterday” but avoid getting into the ‘why-because’ cycle. Be prepared for whinging and tantrums but STICK TO YOUR GUNS!!! The best thing to do once you’ve given this response is to try to redirect their thoughts by using some of the strategies suggested below. However, other times the answer might be yes. “Yes, you can have an ice cream today”. Or “You ate all your vegetables last night at dinner so you can have some chocolate today”. Or even just “Yeah, let’s have a special treat this time”. Framing it like this will help them to understand that these things WILL happen, but only sometimes. Following through with what you say will help them learn that when you say no, you really mean it, and that there will be other times when they can get what they want.

If it’s a toy rather than food that they’re hankering for, the above strategies still apply. The main thing is that your actions are consistent with your words.

  1. Distract!

Whether it’s with “I Spy” or an iPad, playing games will help your child cope with the boredom they’re likely to be experiencing. Older children may enjoy playing the alphabet game (think of as many things as you can that start with a certain letter), or the number plate game for in the car (think of a sentence using the letters on the number plate such as ZLS – zebras like sausages). Younger children can be encouraged to count how many things at the bank are red, or how many people are wearing a particular item of clothing or have a certain colour hair. Simply talking about the different and interesting things you can see can make a  dull trip to the shops that bit more exciting. Together you might be able to make up some funny and silly stories about the things you come across.

  1. Enlist their help.

A great way to occupy your child and help them feel a sense of control and worth is to get them to help you with the shopping. I’m sure we all know that sometimes when children “help” us it might end up taking even longer than if we just did it ourselves. But think about what message it gives a child when we ask them for help: that we value their opinion, have belief in their worth and see them as capable human beings. It’s also a nice opportunity for language stimulation, and if it helps avoid them having a tanty then it actually might end up saving you time after all!

Try to think of age appropriate ways that your child can help out, such as:

  • see if they can direct you around the shopping centre: “Now do we go upstairs or downstairs to get to Coles?”
  • help you find things on the shopping list when you do the grocery shopping. Older children may be able to race over to pick up a green capsicum on their own but younger kids can help by finding the right product once you’ve located the appropriate spot on the shelves.
  • play a guessing game about which product you want to pick up off the shelf e.g. “It’s in a red packet, it’s down on the bottom shelf, it has a picture of a black and white dog on it…”.
  • If you’re happy to, let your child choose which brand/flavour of a particular product to buy. Being given a choice can really empower kids and help avoid power struggles later (click here to see my previous blog about giving choices).
  1. Acknowledge your child’s feelings.

Sometimes this is enough to avoid a meltdown. It validates their feelings and you might be able to explain why you can’t always buy them everything they want (if appropriate for their age). This might go something like: “I understand you want chips, but today we’re just getting food for dinner”. Or “I know, gummy bears are yummy aren’t they? Perhaps we can get some another time”. Or “That remote control helicopter looks really cool. I wish I had enough money to buy it for you”. This might spark off the “What-would-you-buy-if-you-had-all-the-money-in-the-world?” game, and this can be a nice way to distract your child from what they’re asking for. It also helps them realise that you’re not saying no just to be a big old meanie, but that, as the Rolling Stones say, you can’t always get what you want.

  1. Have a plan.

What will you do if they start begging for treats? It’s unrealistic to think that your child will always be an angel when confronted with so much temptation. If they really have a full-blown tantrum it’s probably best just to leave immediately if possible. Leaving the shops will remove the possibility that your child will get what they want, so will hopefully take the wind out of their sails. If they’re just having a whinge and a whine, being firm and re-directing them using the above suggestions should help to calm them down.

Remember that if your child has a massive meltdown complete with fists beating on the floor, kicking and screaming, they’re not trying to humiliate you. Young children don’t understand that their tantrum may cause you embarrassment, so try to ignore other people and focus on what you need to do for your child.

  1. Practise.

Playing ‘shops’ at home can help prepare your child to cope with the real thing, AND is a great way to develop their language and play skills. First, help your child to set up a mini supermarket. I hate to plug products here but K Mart has some fantastic toys that don’t cost the earth – plastic food, little shopping trolley, toy cash register that even beeps when you press the scanner button and comes with pretend money and credit cards. Next, practise making a shopping list, then pretend driving to the shops. Walk around the “aisles” with your child and get them to help you find the items on the list, then go to the register to pay for them. Next time you’re at the shops, encourage your child to pay attention to and talk about different aspects of the shopping experience that you’ve practised at home.


Erin Wilkins is the founder of SmallTalk Speech & Language Therapy. Erin is a Certified Practising Speech Pathologist and a member of Speech Pathology Australia. Since gaining her Master of Speech and Language Pathology Erin has gained extensive experience working with children in a variety of settings within Sydney, rural NSW, and in the UK. She is passionate about empowering parents with the skills to support their child in becoming successful communicators.


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