Go Ahead and Ask: Going to the Grocery Store

Question:  It is impossible to take my 5-year old to the grocery store.  A trip to Walmart is an absolute nightmare.  What can I do so that I can get my shopping done without my kid losing it?

Signed,
Chaotic in the Checkout Line

Dear Chaotic,

This is a very common problem, one that we hear from many parents.  Fortunately, there are a few things you can consider to make these shopping trips more successful.

1.  First, start off by practicing small trips to the store.  Take your child with you and just buy 1 thing each time.  This will help to build up some positive experiences with short, manageable trips. 

2.  Gradually increase the amount of time you spend in the store.  Consider using some kind of visual cue to let the child know when you will be finished.  For example, one mom we know made a Velcro picture board that showed a photograph of her child in the store on the left, three empty velcro spots and then a photograph of the child in the van.  As they shopped, the mom moved the photograph of the child closer and closer to the photo of the van. When the two pictures were on top of one another, shopping was over and they went into the van.

3.  Bring entertaining things to do while you wait.  These could be toys, or you can eat as you go throughout the store.  Consider using a specific backpack or bag just for shopping trips and keep it well-stocked with items the child doesn’t get access to at other times.

4.  Use the shopping trip to practice skills for your child.  For example, shopping aisles are great places to practice walking for short periods.  You may have to suspend your shopping for these “activity breaks”.

5.  For children who are very visually-oriented, playing a game like “Label Bingo” can keep them busy during the trip.  Make a bingo card of labels from actual products and ask the child to try to find those products as you shop.  To make it completely functional, have these items on your shopping list.  When the child fills the card, he/she can win a prize.  For children who are into the alphabet, make a game out of finding foods for each letter of the alphabet.  For children who like numbers, engage them in deciding which item is less expensive.  For children working on making choices, engage them in choosing between 2 items.  In sum, try to find a way to make the activity interesting to the child by appealing to his or her special interests.

6.  If you tend to go to the same stores, consider meeting briefly with the manager to let him/her know of your challenges.  Make a plan for what you can do with your stuff if you have to leave early, or see if there is a way to minimize waiting.  Customer service people can be very accommodating.  They may also have suggestions about the best time to shop.

7.  Most importantly, try to keep the trips short enough to be manageable by the child.  Watch for cues that he/she is getting impatient and try to end the trips before the child is overwhelmed.  It is critical to keep kids practicing being in the community, doing these kinds of activities. The more practice your child has, the better he/she will be able to cope.

8.  Consider ending every trip with something wonderful – a treat of some kind that is given after you leave the store.  If there is a tantrum, there is no need to punish, but maybe the treat isn’t earned.  If the child becomes distressed, do what you need to do to keep everyone safe.  You may need to end the trip early, and hopefully you can try again a little later.  There are times when any child has difficulty coping and a change in scenery can really help to restore an irritable mood.

Good luck!