Handling Children's Feelings in Public Places
We live in a society that has a demanding and judgmental attitude toward parents and young children. Often, the attitude toward children in public is that they should be seen and not heard, that the parent should be “in control” of the child’s behavior, and that children who are having feelings in public are a nuisance. In short, children are not really welcome. Their freshness, curiosity, and frank expressions of feelings are not seen as a gift.
In addition, the childrearing tradition that has been handed down to most of us sets us against our children when their behavior isn’t convenient for adults. Others expect us to criticize, use harsh words, punish, isolate, shame, threaten, or physically attack a child who is “misbehaving.” No parent really wants to act like an adversary to the child he loves. We treat our beloved children in these ways when we can’t think of anything else to do, or when we fear the disapproval of others.
You can learn to predict your child’s emotional moments
There are certain situations in which young children often become emotionally charged. These situations include:
- Being with several people: with the whole family at dinner, at a family gathering, a meeting, a birthday party, the grocery store, church, or temple.
- Moving from one activity to another: leaving home for day care, leaving day care for home, stopping play for dinner, going to bed.
- Being with a parent who is under stress: the parent is cooking, cleaning, shopping, trying to finish a task on time, and is upset because there’s so little help.
- At the end of any especially close or fun-filled time: after a trip to the park, after a good friend leaves, after wrestling, chasing and laughing with Mom or Dad.
When children become emotionally charged, they can’t think. They simply can’t function normally. They become rigid and unreasonable in what they want, and are unsatisfied with your attempts to give them what they want. They can’t listen, and the slightest thing brings them to tears or tantrums. Their minds are full of upset. They can’t get out of that state without your help.
The help your child needs at this time is to have you set kind, sensible limits, and then for you to listen while he bursts out with the intense feelings he has. This spilling of feelings, together with your kind attention and patience, is the most effective way to speed your child’s return to his sensible, loving self. A good, vigorous tantrum, or a hearty, deeply felt cry will clear your child’s mind of the emotion that was driving him “off track” and will enable him to relax again and make the best of the situation he is in.
“Do I have to listen to a screaming, flailing child in the middle of the supermarket?”
Several adjustments of our expectations are necessary before we can let ourselves to be on our children’s side as they do what they need to do in a public place.
- We need to remember that every good child falls apart often in public places. This is, for some reason, the way children are built!
- We need to remember that our society has trained people to disapprove of children doing what is healthy and natural. People disapprove of horseplay, of noise, of exuberance, of too much laughter, of tantrums, of crying, of children asking for the attention they need. This disapproval is out of line. Children are good, and their needs are important, including the need to offload bad feelings.
- We need to decide that, as parents, it’s our job to treat our child well. When other adults criticize him, it makes sense to do what we can to be on our child’s side. If a child doesn’t have his parent to protect him from harm, who will?
- We need to realize that being parents means that we will have to advocate for our children in many settings: with doctors and nurses, with teaches, with relatives, and with strangers.
- Finally, we need to acknowledge that children legitimately need far more attention than it is comfortable to give. Adults who gave less attention to their own children, or who got little attention themselves as children, will be upset when they see you giving undivided attention to your child. We can expect these upsets, but we don’t have to be governed by them.
“OK, but what do I do when my child falls apart in the supermarket aisle, or at the grandparents’ house?”
- Spend one-on-one time with your child before you take him to a public place, so that you and he are connected with each other before heading into a challenging situation. Then, stay connected. Use eye contact, touch, your voice, and short spurts of attention to keep him in the orbit of your love. This contact is deeply reassuring, and can sometimes defuse situations that your child often finds difficult.
- When you see an upset brewing, make contact right away. See if you can find a way to play, so that your child can laugh. Laughter relieves children’s tensions, and allows them to feel more and more connected. If, when you make contact, your child begins to cry or tantrum, do what you can to allow him to continue. His upset will heal if the feelings are allowed to drain.
- Slow down the action, and listen. If getting into the car seat has triggered tears, then stay there, seat belt not yet done, and let the tears flow. Listen until he is done. Because of this cry, your whole day, and his, will improve.
- If necessary, move to a more socially acceptable place. Go to the back bedroom, or move your grocery cart out the exit to the sidewalk. Do this as calmly as you can. Your child isn’t doing anything wrong. It’s sort of like a car alarm going off accidentally—loud, but not harmful to anyone. These things happen!
- Plan what you will say to people who express their opinions or concern. It’s hard to come up with a comment that says, “We’re OK—don’t worry!” in the middle of wild things happening, so think ahead. You can adopt some phrase like, “We seem to be having technical difficulties,” or, “My daughter really knows how to wail!” or, “It’s that kind of a day!” or, “After he’s finished, it’s my turn!” or simply, “We’re OK. I don’t think this will last all day.” A comment like this reassures others, and gives the message that you are in charge.
As one parent I know put it, “I’ve finally figured out that it’s my job to set a limit when he’s going “nuts,” and it’s his job to get the bad feelings out. As I listen to him, people might not be able to tell that I’m doing my job and he’s doing his, but at least I know that’s what’s going on.”
The mission of Hand in Hand is to foster healthy parent-child relationships that will last a lifetime. Parenting by Connection is Hand in Hand’s approach to fostering close, responsive relationships between parents and children. All information has been reprinted with permission from Hand in Hand © 1997 - 2009 Hand in Hand.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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