Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

Handling Meltdowns in Public

by Kirk Martin

You know what it’s like. You’ve been penned up inside all week and would just like to enjoy a simple, peaceful meal out together as a family.

Okay, maybe not peaceful, but without incident.

Just as the waiter brings your food and you pick up your fork, one of the kiddos starts melting down.

Your anxiety and blood pressure skyrocket. He’s getting louder.

You try the sweet “Shhhhh, it’s okay, honey,” but you know that hasn’t worked the last 497 times you tried it.

Other parents are starting to glance over. You get that sick feeling in your stomach, which turns to anger. Your tone is short now—”Stop it. Now.”

Your son is getting more upset. People are turning around in their chairs.

You know what they are thinking: “Can’t you even control your kids for a simple meal?”

Embarrassed, you yank your child’s arm and pull him to the bathroom.

Now he’s crying and you feel awful.

So how can we change this situation? Realize that there are three incontrovertible facts of life that you cannot control. The secret is learning to control what you can.

1. You will be judged
Get used to it. Some people will think you are a terrible parent. That you’re too soft. Or too harsh. They’ll wonder “Why do you appear in public if you can’t control your child?” You can feel the glares and hear the lectures in your head. These things are beyond your control. What CAN you control?

Control your embarrassment. This is YOUR issue, not the child’s. If you allow another person’s opinion to cause you to snap at your kids, you are giving a stranger power over your emotions. That stranger now has power over your relationships because you are doing what HE thinks should be done—which is the expedient, convenient approach.

Do not give anyone that power. You don’t owe anyone an answer. In the end, your relationship with your child is most important. And when your child sees that you can remain calm and emotionally available to them, even when others are giving dismissive glances, they will feel safe and secure.

2. Other people will say stupid things
Count on it. You’ll get stares from people wondering why you have three multi-ethnic kids about the same age. In the presence of your kids, people will ask:

  • “So where is your mother?”
  • “Where did you get them?” (As if there’s a Kids R Us to pick out children!)
  • “What’s wrong with their REAL parents? Drugs? Oh, that’s a shame.”
  • “They are so lucky you took them.”

You can’t control other people’s ignorance, but you can control your response.

Make it personal. Brag about your kids’ gifts and passions. “This is Tarik and he can play the piano and guitar beautifully. Jadyn has the biggest heart in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if she helps millions of kids with disabilities one day. And this is Carlos, the best Lego builder in America and a future architect. I guess you can tell I’m really proud of my kids and blessed to have them in my life.”

This should produce some shame in the people asking the questions—good! By controlling how YOU talk about YOUR kids, you change how other people view them. And boy does it feel good for kids to hear Mom and Dad brag about their specific gifts.

3. Your kids will have meltdowns in public
It’s a given. You can be the greatest parent ever and it will happen. So the big question becomes: WHEN this happens, how are YOU going to react?

Control yourself, not your kids. Look inward and control your own anxiety. Get to a calm place first. Otherwise, you will just yank the child’s arm, speak in a terse tone, and threaten. The situation will get worse as your child jerks his arm away.

Your job isn’t to control your child’s behavior. It’s first to control your own and then teach your children to control their own.

The quickest way to change your child’s behavior is to first control your own. Speak in a firm, matter-of-fact manner, like you’ve been through this before and it’s no big deal.

Calmly redirect your child—if you can, give him a specific job to focus on. (“Could you please get us twelve napkins and seven packets of ketchup? That would help me a lot.”) Getting kids moving is a great way to extinguish the emotional fire.

When you stay immovable, it gives your kids confidence. Inside they know, “I can count on my Mom when I’m at my worst.”

Is it easy? Absolutely not. So practice it ahead of time. The next time your child gets upset, what specific action can you take? How are you going to calm yourself in that moment? Picture it and practice it. It gets easier!

I’d like to wrap this up with a special note from my teenage son. I think it’s good to hear the perspective of a child in this situation:

A Kid’s Perspective

“When I’m upset and freaking out, it’s usually because I’m feeling out of control of the situation. I don’t need my parents freaking out. That just makes me more upset because now no one is in control of themselves, and it’s just a big scream-fest or threat-fest. When they are yelling or just glaring down at me, it’s not safe to even apologize. What I really need when I’m upset is for my parents to model calm and lead me into a calmer place.”
—Casey Martin

On behalf of our family, we want to personally thank you for your selfless commitment to helping children. You are lifesavers. If we can help in any way, write and let us know you are a foster parent.

Celebrate Calm Founder Kirk Martin and his son, Casey (17), have trained over 150,000 parents, teachers and kids how to control their emotions through their newsletter, radio show and workshops. Sign up for their newsletter, say hi and learn more about their family-friendly programs at www.CelebrateCalm.com.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families