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Reality Check: Angel or Brat?

Q. At home my son is well behaved, but in public he can be a tantrum machine. I'm worried that people think he's a terror. What do I do?

When you see a child having a fit in the supermarket, do you always assume she's a monster? Most of us are greatly relieved to see that others live the same ugly scenes we do. Of course, a measure of embarrassment is inevitable when you're trying to swipe your card at the checkout and your hand is shaking because your preschooler's flailing about on the floor screaming that he hates you.

The fact is, some kids are easily overstimulated by the loud noises, bright lights, and strange odors they encounter in what are usually big, overwhelming public places. My daughter Madeline, age 10, still hates going to warehouse stores or shopping malls and can be counted on to have a meltdown there if the errand takes longer than 30 minutes or she's forgotten to bring a book to read. If this sounds familiar, you might want to think about accomplishing your missions at smaller, quieter shops whenever that's possible.

When you have to take him to the mile-long superstore, bring a few picture books for him to look at or a set of headphones and a story tape or CD, to help block out some of the stimuli.

Even if your child's not particularly sensitive, it can sometimes be harder to behave in public than in private. The temptations are more plentiful and the rules more vague, you're more distracted, and the arena (and acoustics) is so much grander and noisier than at home. Also, he may sense that you're more bothered by -- and more vulnerable to -- his histrionics when you're out and about, making them that much more effective. Whenever your son does succeed in getting through a public appearance without much fuss, give him a small surprise reward, such as a favorite treat. He's earned it.