How To Lead When your Child is Screaming

You’ve been there. Maybe it was yesterday, or this morning, or 5 minutes ago when your child decided to lose their mind and completely dismiss what’s acceptable behavior in public. With everyone to watch.

You know…


  • Your child is running up and down the aisles or screaming non-stop on a crowded airplane (and everyone is giving you the hairy eyeball); or when
  • Your child is melting down at Grandma’s house because it just isn’t the right cheese and cracker; or when
  • Your child takes the present from Uncle Joe and instead of saying thank you, says “Is that all I’m getting?”; or perhaps
  • Your teen has decided to check out of all group conversation and resorts to snapchat during an important family gathering

I refer to these hair-raising moments as Red Zone Moments. And we all experience them, over and over again, because frankly, children aren’t perfect. And it’s time that you stop expecting them to perform perfectly.

What matters most is not if your children behave perfectly, it’s how you respond to them when they don’t.

It is often overlooked that our response to our children’s behavior is the thing that makes it either go away or causes us to slide further down that slippery slope into the rabbit hole. If we give into the whining, try to yell or bribe them back to good behavior, or embarrass them with a forced thank you (or apology), we’ve stooped to short sighted parenting strategies that usually backfire, and definitely fracture our relationships. So what are you supposed to do when your kids misbehave in front of an audience?

As tempting as it is to jump in and “teach” the child some lesson, there are only 3 things to do in a Red Zone Moment.

1. Do not make things worse

    • by trying to teach a lesson when you and your child are heated. This is not a time for a lecture, reminder, “listen to me right now” talk, or timeout. You will deal with the incident later, when you are calm (or as a group in family meeting). Take a lesson from the real world and know that fights and lectures don’t facilitate positive change.

2. Move the action forward. So often we get “stuck” in the Red Zone Moment and feel we must stay there until everyone is calm and the problem has been solved. This rarely happens. Instead, move yourself and your child to the next thing. Do whatever you must in that red zone moment – including, giving a hug, walking away for a moment, distracting, allowing for another 5 minutes, making a joke, or simply taking a deep breath picking up the child and walking out.

You are not giving up. And you are not giving in. You are acting in a responsible and respectful manner becoming of a thoughtful and loving adult who is also a parent. Use your imagination here. The goal is to gain control of the situation and move both you and your child out of intense emotions and find calm and control in any way possible.

3. Take a snapshot of the situation so you can assess what happened when you are calm, thoughtful and loving. The goal is to develop an intentional plan that will minimize or prevent further incidents and a plan for navigating through another event with respect and love for yourself and your child. Reconnect with your child and assure them the incident was part of life and nothing to be concerned about. Then work on a solution with your child to build cooperation and connection.

Yes, you might get folks who roll their eyes or tell you that you have to “clamp down” or “do something”, but you and I both know this strategy is far more effective if your goal is to treat you and your child with dignity and respect.

You might respond to those naysayers with a smile and a “we’ll deal with this at home or in a family meeting when we’re a bit more composed”. Or perhaps you won’t respond at all, and simply breathe and smile showing that you aren’t rattled by your little one’s behavior. (It’s ok to fake it ‘till you make it on that one:)

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6 thoughts on “How To Lead When your Child is Screaming

  1. One of your most important posts. Thank you. I love it when I can think of a funny way to say the thing I feel like saying in a mad way, like: “We belong to a mutual confrontation society, don’t we.” Great post. Do the inner work of not getting hooked by the bad behavior of someone else.

  2. Now, with teenagers, I find that getting out of the rabbit hole is much harder it used to be because they (and I) hold onto my reaction for SO long. When I am able to keep my composure I find my stress level stays lower over the course of the day because they are old enough to know when their behavior has been unacceptable and we rarely even need to discuss it further! Now if I can just remember that in the heat of the moment!

    1. Well said, my friend. It is especially important that our kids enter the tween, teen and young adult stages of life, that we kick up our game a bit and remember that they are paying, even MORE, attention to how we behave in high-stress moments. They will mimic what they see us do and if are off the rails, well, it seems reasonable to me, that we allow our kids to run off the rails from time to time. A sincere apology and a request to help you “do better” often leads to a quick recovery and a more cooperative relative in general. Enjoy these delicious years.

  3. Thanks, Rick. This strategy was a lifeline for me. Hope you are well. I recommend you at least once a week. Your work is so important.

  4. Great post. I had this moment yesterday at a busy restaurant. She didn’t want to hold my hand up a very tall flight of stairs, or hold on to the railing. Looking back, I should have just let her go and walk behind her. Instead, I picked her up and brought her to the top. I gave her the option to hold hands or be carried. Looking back at my snapshot, I feel I may have disrespected her as a person, and instead worried more about the constant patrons running up and down the stairs. This is where I cannot separate between safety and positive parenting. Once at the top of the stairs, she flopped down and cried helplessly. I let her sit and cry while I said “you’re upset because I carried you and you wanted to walk yourself”. People were walking by constantly and judging. I ended up doing the 1,2,3 method to get her up and walking towards me so we could accomplish our goal of getting to the potty. She was fine right after, but I felt horribly about the entire thing.

    1. What a great story. It proves that when we take a step back, evaluate our behavior (and not just our child’s) in a high-tense, high-stakes situation, we can gather AWESOME information that will make our next interaction more respectful and that leads to more cooperation and a stronger connection with our kids. Way to go and thanks so much for sharing this story. This is happening all over the world right about now. STressed parents and stressed kiddos. We could all use a little compassion and humor right about now.

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