How do you feel when your child has a meltdown in a public place? Does adrenaline course through you? Does heat radiate through your body up to your flaming cheeks?
Maybe, like me, a dozen inner voices echo around your head,
“I knew we shouldn’t have come.”
“He’s three/seven/eleven years old now. Surely this shouldn’t still be happening?”
“If I’d called him over for a drink five minutes ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Everyone must be thinking what a spoilt brat he is. I bet they blame me.”
“Why can’t I just relax for once like those other parents?”
That’s exactly how I felt when I glanced up to see a boy banging my son over the head with a dodgeball at a trampoline park. As I raced over, not sure of what had happened before but knowing exactly what was going to happen next, my son launched himself at the boy. By the time I reached the court, my son had fled and an angry dad was trying to get my attention. As I turned to follow my son, the man shouted, “That’s right, just walk away when I’m talking to you!”
Looking back on that day, I thought about how much I’ve learned over the past few years about how to handle a meltdown in a public place.
We can’t always help getting triggered; seeing our kid causing mayhem in a crowded place is about as stressful as it gets. But we can plan ahead to manage the fallout in the least damaging way.
Five steps to handling a meltdown in a public place
Step One – Be as well-rested and soul-nourished as possible
A full night’s sleep may not prevent your child melting down, but you’ll handle things better if you’re not at the end of your rope to start with.
Step Two – Focus on your child
When other people are angrily clamouring for your attention after an incident, it’s easy to forget your child. But he’s the one who needs you first.
Check your child is safe. No matter what he’s done, avoid yelling. If you can manage it, offer a hug. Touch reduces stress and releases oxytocin, which promotes bonding.
My son and I hug many times each day, but even loving touch is too much when he’s flooded with negative emotion. Instead I give him water, tell him I love him, and lead him a secure, quiet place.
Step Three – Face the music
If you can, return to the scene of the meltdown.
After the dodgeball incident I approached the other parent and said, “Sorry I walked away when you were talking. I needed to know my son was safe.”
Let any other people involved have their say. They’ll feel heard and you’ll discover more about what led up to the incident. This will help you understand what triggered your child so you’ll be better prepared to talk about what happened with him later.
Thank the other people, apologise if appropriate, and explain – in your preferred way – that your child has special needs. (In my book, all children who get over-stimulated in public places have ‘special needs’.)
At the trampoline park I discovered that my son had marched onto the other team’s side of the dodgeball court and started shouting at them at close range for not following the rules. The other boy’s mother told me that her son had special needs too, which explained why he reacted the way he did. Both parents thanked me for going back to talk to them.
Step Four – Help your child calm down
If your child is still overwhelmed when you return, do what you can to minimise stimulation in his environment.
After what happened at the trampoline park my daughter and I respected my son’s need for quiet and drove home in silence without listening to our usual audiobook.
We stopped at a drive-through Starbucks for fruity iced drinks to help my son cool down and feel better about the outing. Some people might see this as rewarding ‘bad behaviour’, but I don’t want my son to be put off visiting the trampoline park – it’s an important outlet for his psychomotor energy as well as an opportunity for him to get fit and to practise social skills and self-regulation.
Step Five – Talk with your child about what happened
Once your child is completely calm, gently and non-judgementally ask him about the incident. If he gets re-triggered and can’t talk about it say, “I can sense you’re still feeling upset. Let’s talk about this later. I love you.”
I’ve learned that there really is no point trying to have a constructive conversation when my son’s angry – it’s impossible to engage the reasoning part of his brain.
When your child eventually is calm enough to be able to discuss what happened, show that you understand what triggered him and appreciate the positive intention behind his behaviour (however hard to find).
After my son’s trampolining meltdown I said, “I can see that you have a deep sense of fairness, and that caused you to have a strong reaction when you thought the other children were breaking the rules. That sense of fairness will serve you well in your life. Let’s think about ways you can manage the strong feelings you have when something unfair happens in the future.”
Should you make your child apologise after a meltdown in a public place?
You’ll notice none of my steps include dragging an overwhelmed child back to the scene to apologise. I know social convention says I should, but it’s something I gave up a long time ago.
Children rarely choose to ‘misbehave’. When my son mixes with other people in busy public places he will get over-stimulated and – until he learns to handle his intense emotions – meltdowns will happen. If we never went out, he’d never learn to manage his reactions.
My son knows how to say sorry. Sometimes he spontaneously apologises after a meltdown, other times everyone just has to move on. Until other parents have walked a mile in my shoes I won’t worry about their judgements.
Be kind to yourself
Finally, don’t forget to appreciate yourself for the way you handled the situation. Public meltdowns are one of the hardest parts of parenting sensitive and intense children, especially if you have OEs yourself.
Even when things don’t go to plan, appreciate your positive intention and the fact that you did your best in challenging circumstances.
When was the last time your child had a meltdown in a public place?
How did you handle it?
Which of these steps works best with your child?
Have I said anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear your point of view. (Please be kind ;))
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Photo credit: Kenneth Dagenais