Coping with an meltdown in public is one of the more difficult parenting challenges. You and your child are filled with all the same emotions that a typical outburst would bring, but now add to it embarrassment, irritability, over stimulation for both parent and child, often panic to stay on schedule, concerns about safety and germ exposure (child lying on the floor of the bathroom, refusing to get up). Public meltdowns can give parents so much anxiety that we sometimes avoid bringing our children with us when we run errands. This is an effective strategy, however, everyone has to bring their child out into public at some point. There are also many benefits to children experiencing the people and places in their community.
Unfortunately most public places are not “kid-friendly.” Which should really be called “child accessible” because I firmly believe that having public places that are safe for children to explore and be a part of, without being stuck in a cart, stroller, carrier or safety harness, is true accessibility for all. Until that time, parents need to make these places safe. Sometimes all these restraints and inability to explore freely in public can cause pent-up energy and excitement to boil over. Somewhere like the grocery store is extremely stimulating with bright lights, music, tons of people, shelves and shelves of interesting things, very little of which children can touch. All of this can be a recipe for an meltdown. Here is a strategy for how to support your child:
In this scenario the child is allowed to pick one special item, every time they go to the grocery store. (This is not a reward, as rewards are contingent on behaviour. This is an acknowledgement that the child is part of the family and therefore should get to pick at least one item. This can also be used as an incentive. An incentive is different from a reward, as it is not contingent on behaviour. Instead it can be used to remind the child of what they like about going to the grocery store). The child has chosen cereal, but then sees some cookies they would also like. The parent asks them to choose. Usually this works but for some reason, on this day, the child is distraught with having to make a choice. They explode into a meltdown.
Validate and Acknowledge Feelings and Sensations: “I know you are very angry that you cannot have the cookies and the cereal. What does that feel like? Do you feel it in your chest or in your tummy?”
Empathize: “It is so frustrating when we can’t have what we want. When I am angry, I feel like there is a fire-ball in my chest.”
Offer Comfort: “Would you like a hug?” (this also lets your child know you are not mad at them, which can really help de-escalate the situation, especially while making the transition to a more responsive parenting style).
Incentive: “I know you are disappointed about the cookies, but remember, you picked out the cereal, that’s going to be yummy. You can still choose to switch for the cookies instead.”
Offer Entertainment: “Would you like to help me cross off the rest of the items on our list?”
Offer Choice, Set a Limit: This is when all else fails and your child will not come off the floor. You are perfectly fine to wait there until they do come off the floor, that would be the most empathetic thing to do. However, we all know many parents will reach their own limit, and during this transition time, the child may really stretch things out because they may finally feel heard. It is best to sit with them and wait for them to have their emotions BUT if you need to get going, offer a choice: “I know you are still really angry but we need to get going, we are blocking the aisle and I’m worried someone is going to run into us. We still have lots of groceries to get. Are you going to get into the cart or hold my hand?” Child still does not respond, “Ok, if you are not going to let me know your choice, I’m going to have to make the choice for you. I am going to pick you up.”
Many parents will try counting to three or something at this time. That strategy just tends to escalate emotions. It is not supportive of their current need for calmness and can come across as threatening. I do understand where the idea comes from because giving them time to process what you have said, is actually a great idea. Counting it down does not allow them to think, rather it can make them panic even more. I find this leads to more resistance. I recommend instead, counting to 5 or 10 in your own head. This way you know you are giving them enough time to process their emotions and in that time, take 5 deep breaths. At this point it is nearly impossible not to be at least a little flustered, if not down right mortified. Take that moment to find some calm for yourself.
If they are in the cart/stroller/carrier you can begin to proceed with your grocery shopping but continue to offer comfort through hugs and validation of their feelings. “I know you are angry, but you chose the cereal. It’s disappointing when we can’t have what we want.” The mistake that is sometimes made here is over explaining or loss of patience because for the parent we are thinking ‘why aren’t they over this yet?’ Just keep returning to validation, empathy, mind-body connection, offer comfort, offer entertainment, remind them of the incentive and their choice. If it was me, I would also be comfortable with offering to take both snacks and then make a choice when everyone has calmed down, but that’s just me. For some children, you may just repeat the same incident later, so may as well just deal with it now, or for other children, this could work. It could validate their feelings and allow them time to calm down before having to make a choice. Only you know what would work best for your own child.
If your child is on the floor, it is best to sit with them but if you can’t do that, get down to their level. Reiterate everything: validate feelings, empathize, offer comfort, remind them about the incentive, offer entertainment, offer choice. Once we have reached this point it can kind of feel like a chess game. Not that the children are engaged in it, or aware of the game, they are just processing their emotions, but as the adult, we are sweating bullets just praying that our child will get off the floor. It is really tempting to offer a reward for compliance and also difficult to not utter threats, out of frustration and embarrassment, but try to stay calm and block out the outside world. Remember that either of those approaches will likely only escalate the situation and will not teach your child how to process difficult emotions. If it does “work”, it will only teach them how to stuff down their emotions in order to receive a reward or to please their caregiver. Try this approach instead, and most of all remain compassionate and empathetic. If you are at a loss for what to say, just go with empathy.
Why Take This Approach?
The quick answer is…. it is the easiest way to respond to a public meltdown. Even parents who do not practice gentle parenting should try this method just for public meltdowns and see how much easier it is to move through the process instead of trying to pacify or extinguish your child’s emotions. This approach validates children’s feelings and helps them practice coping strategies, while developing an understanding of the mind-body-behaviour connection. It also supports long-term mental health and well-being. A bi-product of this method is it can help the parent to stay calm too, and focused on the big picture.
I’ve heard people complain that when they empathize with their children in public, sometimes they get judgemental stares. I have not experienced this often, although I do get a lot of supportive comments and smiles. I think we may feel judged, more than we actually are, but for arguments sake, let’s say that they are judging your parenting. Doesn’t that make them an ignorant and cruel person? They would prefer for you to be meaner to your child? What kind of person is so bothered by typical childhood behaviour that they wish punishment upon strange children in the grocery store? Why would you care about obtaining the approval of this awful, cold-hearted person? I always tell myself that anyone who would ridicule kindness is not someone I want to please anyway. Be your loving, kind self everywhere you go and your children will model after your gracious behaviour. You will likely see them act with the same kindness and understanding one day. Even more importantly, when they are parents, they will remember how you responded to their meltdowns. They will likely continue the cycle of supportive and responsive parenting. That is the big picture of why to try this approach; quite simply, it is a little piece of making the world a kinder place.
If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086
Read more about the Grocery Store Scenario:
Empathy & Incentives vs. Rewards & Punishments: The Grocery Store Part 1: https://wordpress.com/post/responsiveparentingblog.wordpress.com/147
Responding to Impatience with Empathy: The Grocery Store Part II: https://wordpress.com/post/responsiveparentingblog.wordpress.com/162
Alfie Kohn: The Risks of Rewards- https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/risks-rewards/
mind-body-behaviour: Mind-Body Therapies in Children and Youth- http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/138/3/e20161896.full.pdf
gracious behaviour: Model Graciousness- https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/
When your child’s anger triggers https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/peaceful-parents-happy-kids/201507/when-your-childs-anger-triggers-you