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 tantrums in public are a nuisance. In short, children are not fully welcome. Their freshness, curiosity, and frank expression of feelings are not seen as a gift.
In addition, the child-rearing 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 toward the child he loves. We treat our beloved children in these ways when we can’t think of anything else to do, when we feel very upset, or when we fear the disapproval of others.
You can learn to predict your child’s emotional moments and tantrums in public
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, and going to bed.
- Being with a parent who is under stress: the parent is cooking, cleaning, shopping, trying to finish a task on time, or 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 want unreasonable things, 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. Your child needs your closeness and patience. They can’t get out of that state without your help.
At times like this your child needs you to set kind, sensible limits and to have you close to him 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.
Your crying child deserves support
Several adjustments of our expectations are necessary before we can let ourselves be on our children’s side as they release pent-up feelings in a public place.
- We need to remember that every good child has big feelings 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, and of children asking for the attention they need. This disapproval is out of line. Children are good. Their needs are legitimate, 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 continue to treat him with respect. Being a parent means advocating for our children in many settings: with doctors and nurses, with teachers, 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 see childrearing differently, or who got little attention themselves as children, will be upset when they see you giving kind attention to your child. We can expect these upsets, but we don’t have to be governed by them.
So when your child bursts out with feelings, slow down the action, and listen. If getting into the car seat has triggered tears, then stay there, seat belt not yet fastened, and let the tears flow. Listen until he is done. Because of this cry, your whole day and his will improve.
If necessary, you can move to a more socially acceptable place: Go to the back bedroom, or move your grocery cart to a corner of the store. Do this as calmly as you can. Your child isn’t doing anything wrong. He’s following his strong instinct to expel awful feelings so he can function better. He knows what he’s doing. It’s sort of like a car alarm going off accidentally—loud, but not harmful to anyone. You can 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,” “My daughter really knows how to wail,” “It’s that kind of a day,” “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 gives the message that you are in charge.
You are a good parent when you get down to eye level with your child, put your arm around him, and say gently, “No gum today, son,” in the market and listen to his tantrum. It’s respectful, the limit is a good one, and he’s recovering his equilibrium as quickly as he can.
You may be able to prevent some public outbursts
Public outbursts are often triggered by all the work we parents do to get our children out of the house in the first place. We have to dress them, gather our things, make phone calls, find lost items, and rush around. By the time we’ve reached a public place, their delicate emotional balance has been thrown off because we haven’t been able to connect well with them. Their minds are full of tension.
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 on the way 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 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.
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.