*this article was written pre-covid. Any advice that goes against your local public health department directives should be modified.
We want children to talk to us about their emotions, but often when they do, we accuse them of not using “the right tone.” Sometimes they can be whiny, stubborn, withdrawn, impatient, loud and disruptive. This is often in response to their feelings, some of which can be boredom, impatience and frustration. This behaviour can very often be a trigger for parent anger. Some parents remember that public displays of impatience were not tolerated, when they were a child, triggering feelings from their own upbringing. In reality, we all use various voice tones to express our emotions. Children are still learning how to use these tones effectively, and let’s be honest, many adults still struggle with this too. So, how can you respond to your child’s emotional needs, while you are trying to finish grocery shopping? One responsive way to handle the situation is to empathize, entertain and hurry up.
Empathize and Identify
“I know the grocery store is so boring for you. What does it feel like to be bored? Where do you feel it? Do you feel it in your shoulders? Or do your hands feel bored? I find when I’m bored my shoulders droop and my head hangs.”
When you validate your child’s feelings and empathize with them they feel heard. That simple gesture can help diffuse many situations. Children (and even adults) will whine, cry, scream, pout, withdraw and complain when they are unhappy about something. This is our way of telling the world how we feel. That ability to express and interpret emotions with such complexity, is one of our greatest mental assets, yet we try to ignore our emotions, pacify them, deflect them. Emotions are part of our road map to the world.
We need emotional intelligence to understand how to get along with others and it starts with recognizing our own feelings. This may be the difference between simply changing the behaviour and using empathy and identification to look at the cause of the behaviour. Just changing the behaviour probably will not teach emotional intelligence, however, it can teach avoidance and detachment. Behavioural approaches that focus on simply modifying unwanted behaviour can end up teaching children to suppress their feelings, rather than learning how to negotiate them. They can come to realize that suppressing their feelings is necessary, so their behaviour becomes less troublesome for the adults around them. Not only is this an unhealthy way of responding to emotional challenges, it is often ineffective, because feelings will keep coming up anyways, especially for a child who is just learning to regulate their emotions and behaviour. They are also still developing impulse control, and can often know what the expected behaviour is, but forget in the moment. Acting impatient and frustrated, because they are feeling impatient and frustrated, may be difficult for the parent, but it is actually another opportunity to validate their feelings and strengthen their emotional intelligence.
Validation of your child’s feelings and discussing how those sensations feel in your child’s body is the most impactful part of this approach. Now responding to those emotions is important but you do not want them to feel as though the need to “cheer up.” Often we mistake sympathy for empathy. We should encourage our child to find ways to negotiate their feelings, instead of just finding ways to just distract them from how they feel (which is a common approach). If your child was expressing anger about not being able to go the park and then you tried to distract her by singing a song, instead of listening to what she is trying to say, then that is distraction. In this situation, your child’s emotional challenge is they feel bored. After discussing boredom and how that feels, you can start encouraging them to find ways to solve their problem. Boredom is a feeling and it is a valid feeling and if we were at home, I would just let my child be bored (unless they asked me for help). In this case we all know the boredom and impatience is likely not going away, just because we validated how they feel (sorry it doesn’t work that easily for impatience). I believe in this situation you are meeting your child’s need for entertainment with trying to help them find something to do while you shop.”I find the grocery store boring too, sometimes, but it’s always more fun when you’re here! What do you think we could do to make the grocery store more fun?” If your child does not respond, you can make a suggestion, “how about we sing a song?” or offer a toy (I take ones right off the shelves and then put them back before I leave, if I have to), or a snack, or if all else fails, I am not above offering technology to an older child.
*For us the IPad is strictly reserved for these moments when compliance is somewhat necessary. We don’t usually use it in the grocery store, but we often allow our oldest son to use it at a restaurant or in a waiting room. It is the only thing on this planet that could get him to sit in one spot for more than 60 seconds. I got a lot of grief about this from other colleagues but I just had to tell myself, they don’t know my son like I do, they don’t know his needs like I do. If this is what he needs to allow us to go to an appointment or go out to eat on a rare occasion, than I have made peace with our less-than-perfect parenting choice.
Other ideas to combat impatience while running errands:
- Switch to the baby carrier half-way through
- For an older child, get them involved in the planning of meals and crossing off of items on the list. I always see grandmothers doing this with their grandchildren and I think of course, you don’t need an IPad, you’ve been doing this a long time.
- Bring a back-up adult who can take the child for a little walk. My childless friends often enjoy accompanying me to the grocery store and helping me with my children. We also often go as a family, and my husband takes my eldest and throws him in bins of soft toys while I shop.
- An incentive or entertainment does not need to be material in nature. Quite the contrary, it is even more beneficial to offer experiences as incentives and entertainment, such as doing a finger play together or going on a forest walk after the grocery store.
- Mindfulness activities for children and games such as “I spy” can help pass the time and keep children and parents calm.
Instead of expecting things to get better and the child(ren) to become less agitated, realize that it would be best for everyone to make this as quick as possible. It is okay to adjust your plans according to your children’s needs. It’s about balance. You went to the grocery store, but you made it quick, and now you’re going to the park. I think we need to demonstrate that relationships are give and take. We can’t let our children completely run the agenda, but it is hugely beneficial to include them in the decision-making process. I also think flexibility and a “good enough” attitude can go a long way as a parent. I find the days I struggle the most are when I have expectations for a Disney movie type day and it ends up being a typical day, with the typical challenges. I try to accept that our plans are likely not going to go off perfectly and we need to accommodate for everyone’s needs, and be prepared for challenges. Parenting in environments that are not made for children, I think, will always be challenging. True accessibility includes public places that are safe for children too.
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
To continue reading about the grocery store example read
“the right tone.”: Don’t Take That Tone With Me- https://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/reduce-childs-angry-tone-of-voice/
parent anger.: What Helped Me Become a Calmer Mom- https://playfulnotes.com/what-helped-me-become-a-calm-mom/
validate your child’s feelings: Five Easy, Powerful Ways to Validate Your Child’s Feelings-https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/liking-the-child-you-love/201309/five-easy-powerful-ways-validate-your-childs-feelings
emotional intelligence: Benefits of Emotional Intelligence- https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Smy5DRQ3HpkC&oi=fnd&pg=PA104&dq=benefits+of+emotional+intelligence&ots=nBWsTSDrmc&sig=9o0qV4dpRBq9exQIpsczyNImdGY#v=onepage&q=benefits%20of%20emotional%20intelligence&f=false
Mindfulness activities for children: Mindfulness Activities for Children And Teens: 25 Fun Exercises For Kids- https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/mindfulness-for-children-kids-activities/