Jacob, almost 3 years old, has thrown himself on the floor of the grocery store screaming that he must have one more candy, just “one more!” Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. And you’re also not alone if these public meltdowns sometimes make you feel embarrassed or self-conscious. Unfortunately, feeling judged is pretty common among parents. ZERO TO THREE’s Tuning In survey showed that nearly 9 in 10 parents feel judged — and almost half say they feel judged all the time or nearly all the time.
It can be hard to avoid feeling ashamed of your child’s out-of-control behavior — in large part because it sometimes feels like their outbursts are a reflection on your parenting. Am I totally incompetent? Am I raising a spoiled or ungrateful child? No! But, these moments naturally throw parents for a loop and can often leave you feeling upset or angry at your child. Here are some things to keep in mind during these stressful situations:
Don’t let onlookers get to you. Ideally, just tune them out. Most are likely feeling your pain, having been there themselves, and aren’t judging. And for those feeling superior or compelled to teach a lesson, or who are experiencing some guilty pleasure that it’s not them in the hot seat, ignoring is still a good strategy. This allows you to stay focused on helping your child cope.
Or, kill them with kindness. If a bystander makes a “helpful” comment (“Maybe he’s tired” or “You really shouldn’t let him call you names”), avoid being reactive. Instead, consider responding: “It’s nice that you want to help. I really appreciate it. But I’m all good. Learning that he can’t get everything he wants is a hard lesson for a little guy. You can’t expect him to say, ‘No problem, Mom, thanks for helping me eat healthy.'” This is a nice way to send some important messages: you are in control, setting appropriate limits and helping your child learn to cope with life’s disappointments. You are also providing important context about appropriate expectations for little kids. This can be a particularly good strategy when it is your mother, mother-in-law, another family member or a close friend who is trying to help.
Stay calm. If you are anxious and upset, your child is more likely to be anxious and upset. If you are calm and composed, she is likely to pull herself together more quickly. When she is falling apart, she needs you to be her rock. It’s best to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that if you lose it too, it will likely make the situation more stressful and challenging.
Validate your child’s feelings. “I know you’re very angry that I am not letting you have the gummies.” Validating feelings is not the same as validating behavior. Feelings aren’t the problem. It’s what kids (and parents) do with their feelings that can be problematic. That’s why one of your most important jobs is to help your child learn to manage these strong, difficult emotions. But that takes time and practice. (Many adults are still working on this skill!) And it starts with validation, which helps children feel understood — and is the first step in helping them identify and then manage these emotions.
Provide choices that you can implement. This might mean offering your child a choice of another, acceptable food — perhaps something that is a little special but healthy, such as yogurt raisins. Some parents don’t want to offer a substitute at all. That is a personal decision. Even when offering the alternative, your child may flat-out reject it and intensify the tantrum to show you just how lame he thinks this other option is. In that case, you might calmly say, “You are really upset about not getting what you want. It is my job to keep you safe so I am going to put you in the grocery cart. You will be okay.” And then you follow through with as much calm as you can muster. Divert your child by talking about what you see in the grocery aisles. You might ask him if he can find and point to his favorite cereal. This lets him know you are going to ignore his outburst, but you are not ignoring him. And it helps him understand that you can handle his feelings and will be a “safe base” for him.
It’s important not to allow your worry about bystanders’ opinions and judgments to drive your behavior in these situations. Many parents tell me that they end up giving in to their child — to end this miserable situation as quickly as possible — even though they don’t think it’s best for their child. When you give in, your child will realize, “Mommy or Daddy will pretty much give me anything to get me to quiet down when other people are around.”
Instead, trust yourself: You know your child and what she needs when she’s having a hard time. It’s not your job to appease others around you; it’s your job to raise a child who can cope with life’s frustrations and disappointments, and who knows you have her back, even when the going gets rough.