Shopping. It has to be done, and sometimes there’s no choice but to bring the kids along. The bright lights, crowds, and distractions can be overwhelming for children and adults alike, making it difficult to get things done. Thankfully, there are some simple steps you can take to make this time more enjoyable for all.


  1. Plan ahead. 
    • Make a game plan and prepare for your outing to help reduce stress on all involved. Try to schedule shopping outings at times that don’t interfere with normal meal or nap times and give yourself plenty of time to get everything done.
    • It’s also a good idea to have nutritious snacks, drinks and comfort items (preferred stuffed animal, blanket, etc.) available for the group to help reduce irritability.
  2. Prepare children for the trip.
    • Let them know about how many stops you plan to make, what kinds of stores you will be visiting and types of things you’ll be purchasing (and which ones you won’t), how long you think the outing will take, and what rules they will need to follow during the outing.
    • Setting clear expectations for behavior before leaving the house helps create a sense of predictability and minimizes multiple commands during the outing, as you can simply remind children of the expected behaviors instead of telling them in the moment when they may have more difficulty attending to or remembering the information you’re trying to share.
    • For some children, shorter “practice trips” could be helpful so they get used to the experience, expectations and tangible benefits of following directions.
  3. Consider rewards to offer.
    • The promise of a small treat or other reward at the end of a trip often helps to encourage positive behavior. Make sure you clearly state how your child can earn this reward before the trip, and that you can deliver the reward if they earn it. Unclear expectations or rewards that are earned but not delivered can severely limit a child’s motivation to adjust their behavior for future outings.
    • For younger children, consider having several small rewards such as stickers or a trip to look at the toy aisle built into your shopping trip so children receive frequent feedback about their positive behavior.
    • Praise your child when they are engaging in positive behavior and try to “catch” your child being good to find opportunities for positive reinforcement and increase the likelihood the desired behavior continues.
  4. While shopping, engage your children in interesting activities.
    • Activities do not have to cost money or involve extra purchases. Your attention and genuine interest in conversations with your child is oftentimes the most desired reward of all.
    • Consider asking your child what they are looking forward to most about the upcoming week or use your surroundings to find topics of conversation. This can include playing games like “I Spy,” having children be in charge of the shopping list, looking for prices and reporting back to you, taking pictures of interesting decorations or gift ideas, or putting items into the cart/pushing the cart.
    • Notice what catches your child’s attention and remark on it. Not only does this help keep your child engaged in positive behavior and strengthen your relationship, it can also help identify high-value rewards you can use in the future.
    • It may take multiple attempts at engaging with your child before they reciprocate. Remember, even though children often seek out their caregiver’s attention, shopping is full of colorful distractions that are meant to draw in customers of all ages.


When Challenges Come Up

While positive behaviors can often be maintained via distraction, praise, rewards and setting clear expectations, even the best-laid plans sometimes can’t compete with feeling tired, overwhelmed or hungry. When this begins to happen, try to remain calm and not take the behavior personally—many of us may not be at our best when we’re in a similar state!

Think about what your child may need to reset. This could be taking a break from shopping to grab a bite to eat, finding a place to sit down and rest for several minutes while engaging in an enjoyable activity, reminding them of the pre-planned reward they’re close to earning or simply ignoring the behavior. For more disruptive behaviors, finding a quiet spot in a large store or other open space with less foot traffic for a time out may be necessary. Look at these breaks as a time to recharge and reset for both of you, and do what you need in order to stay calm and model regulation for your child.

After the break, try to find an activity your child might be interested in (e.g., a preferred store) and look for opportunities to praise and reward their behavior as a means to reset their mood.

With some thoughtful planning, agile readjustments and a positive mindset, shopping with children can be a rewarding experience.