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I never knew how little control I could have over another human being until I had my children. Add in a public space, and that already low level of control seems to decrease, matched with a self-consciousness increase.
I come from a very large family — I have 21 first cousins. Most of whom lived in a 120 mile radius from me and my family when I was growing up, so we saw everyone a lot. Now if we start to count their spouses, and their children (the whole cousin-once-removed thing), I have 30 cousins in total.
On both sides of my family I am towards the oldest, meaning I have been a caregiver or babysitter to many, many little kids.
I also started babysitting in my neighborhood when I was quite young and continued babysitting through my college years.
Before I had kids, I attributed the fact that the kiddos usually behaved really well to me and my amazing babysitting skills.
Don’t hurt yourself laughing too hard.
Now as a mom, I know now what I did not know then — that parenting is complex, and amazing, and confusing, and relentless, and wonderful, and hard.
Parents are constantly trying to figure out how best to parent their child.
There are so many approaches to parenting, and each family is doing what feels right for them.
At home, maybe they feel they have this whole parenting thing down pat — props to you!!
But then, alas, we enter the public arena.
And it really can feel like an arena, or amphitheater, or coliseum, where everyone else is looking and listening in, judging your every move as a parent. It may be at the store, or post office, or even sometimes at places where you might expect a child to behave quite well, like storytime.
You feel some side-eye as your child begins a tantrum. Your brain goes a million miles a minute to assess how to handle the situation but while your outside seems calm, your inside is in a panic.
This tantrum can’t grow bigger!!
You attempt to speak softly, but when that fails, you do what I like to call the “whisper yell”.
The route the tantrum takes from here is all but unknown, as even the most consistent of child senses the stage lighting and growing audience.
So what do we do? I propose that we approach these public meltdowns from two sides.
One, from the side of the parent, and one from the side of the onlooker.
I’ll start with the onlooker first. Remember that this public parenting challenge is not unique to any of us.
We’ve all been there, so I charge you:
Mamas unite! Strength in numbers! I urge that when you are the lucky one NOT in the throws of your child’s tornado, BE A SUPPORT — NOT A JUDGE!
Give the parent a knowing smile. Offer a word of encouragement such as “you’re doing great, mama” or “One of those days, huh! I’ve been there too. You’ll make it through!”, or whatever feels to you like the right thing to say.
But please, please, don’t just stare, or make a face, or roll your eyes. That parent is doing the best they can.
And now from the side of the parent.
I repeat, remember that this public parenting challenge is not unique to you. Your child is not the first child to become visibly and audibly upset in public.
People may be watching, but their thoughts may actually be about wondering how they can help! (Especially if they’ve read this post!)
If you can remind yourself of that, it helps reduce the self-consciousness we feel, which also helps you keep your cool and handle the situation most effectively.
And how should we handle a public tantrum? There are many options, but I’ll share three that may help you:
- Take a moment to connect with your child.
Lower yourself to their level and repeat what they want and label their feelings. I mean it — repeat to them verbatim what they are wanting or what is happening. “You want me to buy you the ball and you’re sad that I am not” or “You want to put the credit card in the machine and you’re frustrated that it won’t go in” or “You are tired of waiting” or whatever the case may be.
This goes a long way in reducing a child’s tantrum because they feel heard and understood.
From there you can keep going with your outing as their big feelings start to lose their power, or you can continue the conversation.
With the ball example, I might say something like “It makes you sad and mad that I am not buying the ball. I am sorry that you are upset. But you know what?! I would love to play ball with you when we get home with the balls we have! Would you like that?”
- Do nothing!
This depends on your child of course, but we all know that attention spans can be short in children. What feels like a long tantrum to us may actually be only a few minutes.
Wait it out as you keep doing whatever it is you are out to do. Often the child will let out their big feelings, and then feel better, and move on.
When I do nothing, I just make sure that I am practicing deep breathing to help me tolerate the minutes-long meltdown.
- If it’s becoming too much, pack it in!
Sometimes we just are not in the mental space to handle a public outing with drama.
If the right thing for you is to try again another time, then that’s just fine!
Implement these tips and let me know if you found them helpful! Let me know how you handled a recent public outing or how you supported another mama in need!
Note: this post is handy for when you are already experiencing a public tantrum; keep your eyes open for an upcoming post about trying to avoid the tantrum in the first place!
You may also enjoy my post on stopping mom judging!
Christina is the writer behind the blog Real Life Mama. She is a mom two littles, a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. Christina and her family live in San Diego, where she is a full-time mama, part-time mental health therapist (LPCC), and round-the-clock blogger, writer, and author. If she ever gets a moment to herself, she can be found singing at the top of her lungs, cooking, and crafting. Thanks for reading!