Public Meltdowns

Have you ever had to deal with a tantrum while waiting on line at the supermarket or bank?  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.  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.  A criticism of a child’s behavior becomes a criticism of the parent.  Such an opinion is often expressed quite vocally by some who witness the scene.  

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.  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.

Mom reported that her little girl becomes contrite as soon as they leave, saying she is sorry for the way she behaved, enumerating all the things she said and did that were “bad”.  Since she clearly knows that her behavior is “wrong”, why does she do it? 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?  One possible explanation is an inability to deal with a certain level of stimulation.

One of the things that make it possible for us to live in a noisy, at times chaotic world is our ability to screen out many sights and sounds.  A kind of built-in barrier 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 more than others are 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 group activities.  Some children react if others get too close to them and may give the impression of pushing or hitting for no reason as they try to create the space they need around them. 

The question is how to help children deal with these reactions.  This child needs first to 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 upset by her mother’s anger and frustration.  The next step might be to practice going into these upsetting places initially for a few minutes at a time, with mom offering support by “talking” her through it. 

What can help us as parents is having a plan ahead of time to deal with upsetting situations.