Public Upsets

Have you ever had to deal with a tantrum while waiting on line at the supermarket, or lost your place on line at the bank in order to dash after your child?  Have you ever experienced those disapproving looks from others, or even critical comments when your child “misbehaves” in public?  It would be hard to find a parent who hasn’t lived through one of these experiences, or something like it.

The most common source of embarrassment for parents is when children act up – or act out in public places.  Sometimes the places are not even really public, but rather places that involve other adults, such as gatherings at the home of relatives, or birthday parties.  Birthday parties are a particular source of frustration and often worry for parents when their children cling to them or refuse to join the others.  In a situation that seems to offer so much fun why would a child cry, want to leave – even reject the cake or ice-cream?

And why do parents feel embarrassed, even humiliated at times by such behavior?   Clearly they feel that a child’s behavior is a reflection on them – that somehow they are at fault as parents for the behavior that they and others find unacceptable.  A criticism of a child’s behavior becomes a criticism of the parent.  Such an opinion is often held by others and many times expressed quite vocally by some who witness the scene.  

Also, with something like the birthday party situation, a mother may begin to question whether something is wrong with her child.  The behavior not only seems inappropriate to the situation, but stands out in contrast to the behavior of many other children.  We take pride in our children being individuals, yet want them to behave like everyone else at certain times and places.

Recently, a mom asked me what to do about her three year old who seems to go out of control whenever they are in a public place.  She cries, screams, and lashes out at her mother, attacking her physically as well as verbally.  It has reached a point where mom feels she cannot do an errand or go into a store when her daughter is with her.  Upon further questioning, I learned that this occurred only in enclosed places.  She is perfectly fine until they enter the store, bank, post office or wherever it is they are going – as soon as they leave she is fine again.    While she reacted that way at school initially, this behavior subsided once she came to know the people there.

What seemed interesting is mom’s report that her little girl becomes contrite as soon as they leave.  She tells mom she is sorry for the way she behaved, enumerating all the things she said and did that were “bad”.  This is the kind of thing that drives parents crazy.  Since she clearly knows that her behavior is “wrong”, and makes mom upset and angry, why does she do it?

It seems equally clear, however, that although her behavior may seem deliberate, it is actually out of her control.  When her mom describes her child as out of control, that is exactly right.  Her behavior is not under her control.  But, what is it about these situations that put this child out of control?  There are undoubtedly several possible explanations, but one that is fairly common is an inability to deal with a certain kind and level of stimulation.

One of the things that make it possible for us all to live in a noisy, at times chaotic world is our ability to screen out many sights and sounds.  We have a kind of built-in barrier that prevents an overload of stimulation that could make it impossible to function. As with many other characteristics, people vary in this ability.  Some of us startle more easily than others, or are more aware of and affected by noise or confusion in our environment.

This is particularly true for young children who have varying degrees of sensitivity and may not have as yet developed the coping skills to deal with their reactions to things and people around them.  One sees this when children are just beginning to be part of group activities, such as in nursery school.  Some children react if others get too close to them and may give the impression of pushing or hitting for no reason.  Their behavior is almost an involuntary reaction as they try to create the space they need around them.  In the same way, some children are more accepting of physical contact than others.

The question is how to help children deal with these reactions.  With the mom who raised the question, we talked about first letting her child know that mom understands that crowded indoor places are hard for her and that mom is going to help her.  This may take some of the pressure off a child who already thinks of her behavior as “bad” and is additionally upset by her mother’s anger and frustration.  The next thought was to practice going into these upsetting places initially for a few minutes at a time, with mom offering support by “talking” her through it. 

Often, it helps us as parents if we have a plan ahead of time to deal with upsetting situations.  I’m eager to learn how this one works out and will report back when I hear from the mother.

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