Imagine you wake up one morning excited to spend the entire day with your friend.
You get dressed and wait for her to pick you up. You don’t know what you’re going to do or where you’re going to go, but you’re ready for a fun time.
About 15 minutes into your day together, you realize… it’s not very fun.
She took you out to run errands. You don’t know how long each errand is going to last. You don’t know when you’ll eat or get some free time… or even when the day will end.
You feel helpless and probably a little irritated.
This is what every day is like for a lot of young kids. They don’t know what to expect and many times they don’t even get a say. This can lead to tantrums, frustration, and power struggles.
Honesty is the Best Policy to Help Avoid Temper Tantrums
As parents we sometimes need to do things that are not as fun for children. It’s part of life. But that doesn’t mean it has to be frustrating for either you or your child.
This is where setting clear expectations comes into play.
Setting expectations means that you’re going to explain to your child what their day (or part of their day) is going to be about, in detail and in the order of events.
How to Set Expectations Children Can Understand
When children know what to expect and what’s expected of them, it’s easier for them to handle themselves better throughout the day.
However, setting clear expectations is not as simple as saying we’re going to the store and then home, especially if you have a young child. They tend to need more clear guidance.
Give Your Child a Rundown of the Day
Children don’t always understand what an event or errand means, and they don’t keep track of time like we do. The best way to explain to your children what the next hours are going to be like is by giving them a detailed rundown – using actions you plan to take during the day as markers for them to remember what’s next.
For example, if a trip to IKEA with your children always ends in tears because they want to run around the store and play instead of walking with you choosing furniture. So, before you get to the store you give them the full rundown:
“We are going to IKEA to buy a new couch. I know you love to play there so we’ll get to do both things – what mommy needs and play. The first thing we’re going to do is walk through the store and pick a couch. Then we will go to the register to pay for the couch and take it to the car. After that, we will have lunch and then we’ll go to the kids’ section so you can play!”
Why give such detailed information?
Because when your child is about to have a meltdown in the store you can remind them of the order of things. So using this same example, let’s say your child starts getting frustrated when you’re at the checkout lane. You can remind them what are the following steps (after we pay this couch we’re going to put in the car, eat, and then go play) which usually helps to calm them down because they realize they won’t be in this boring checkout lane forever.
Giving your child a detailed rundown takes just a few minutes, and can even happen while you’re driving to your destination. Make it a habit by practicing this daily, even for the little things. This is also a great way to get better at setting expectations.
Repeat and Remind
The first time you give a rundown, your child might not remember what you said. Use the time while you’re driving or walking to your destination to go over the plan again..
Have them repeat it back to you. You want to make sure your child understands what they’re going to be doing and when they will get to play.
Make a Little Time for Fun
Children need time to play. Whenever possible make room for play time before, during, or after your errands. We usually leave it for the middle or the end because it gives them something to look forward to. When your child knows they will get some time to do something they enjoy too, it’s easier for them to behave better during the “boring” part of their day.
A child once told me, “Being a kid is so boring, I never get to say what we do.”
Those words made me realize how we forget how little control children have over their lives. That’s why it’s important to make space in the day for a fun activity or something they choose to do.
If you are short on time and can’t let them play freely, turn your errand into a fun adventure by involving them in the process. Let them help you choose food at the market. Make it a game to spot items of a certain color, take four steps and make a silly move, sing a song, etc.
Explain the Behavior You Expect
If you’re taking your children somewhere where they won’t have much freedom to run and talk, explain the type of behavior you expect.
You can say things like, “The library is a place where we use our quiet voices, but once we come out we can do a silly dance and sing out loud.” Remind them of this during your errand, especially if you see that they’re about to have a meltdown.
You will probably have to remind your child many times, and that is completely normal.
Time Your Activities Wisely
Let’s face it. Some errands or events can be boring – even for us. Avoid taking your child to something that will bore them when you can.
When you can’t avoid it, make sure you’re not dragging them out during nap or meal time, or whenever it might be hard for them to behave. This way, you’ll be setting expectations for yourself as well.
Bring a Snack, Book, or Toy
You never know when a child will get hungry and many times we miscalculate the time involved. Be prepared by bringing extra snacks, books, or small toys you can easily carry in your purse when they’re starting to get bored or lose their patience.
If you know you might be somewhere a long time, let them pack a few of their favorite toys to bring along.
Keep Your Own Expectations in Check
Many times we are so rushed, we tend to bring stress into their lives. We forget they are children, and we start to expect from them more than they can give at their current stage of development.
Being stressed out makes us forget at times that our kids are still learning how to deal with their emotions and how to live in this world.
If your child starts to have a meltdown, instead of rushing them or getting angry, remember they are little and learning. Be a calming presence in their lives by giving them space to feel their emotions and then showing them how to calmly process them. You do this by showing them how you are a calm parent, even in the midst of chaos.