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The Kindness of Strangers

*The stories in these posts are a compilation of discussions that I have had with parents throughout the years.


I read a wonderful article recently about women reaching out to support another mom in an airport. Her child was having an epic meltdown. This pregnant mom, alone in the airport with her toddler, became completely overwhelmed with the situation, sat down and covered her face with her hands. Several other women noticed what was happening (who wouldn’t?), and instead of silently (or not so silently) judging, these women who had never met one another, joined together and formed a circle around the crying woman and her toddler. One of the women sang songs with the little one, one peeled an orange for him, another sat with the mom and gave her a bottle of water. This act of kindness allowed that embarrassed, overwhelmed mom a few minutes to catch her breath and regroup, allowed time for the child to calm down, which allowed them to get on their plane. After, those other women quietly went back to what they were doing. How amazing is that? We can only hope to find that support, from complete strangers no less, when we are in a similar situation.

I’m sure you know the scene; you have no food in the house, and this is the only time you have to go to the store. Your sweet little one protested a bit when you told him he had 5 minutes before you had to leave. After all, he was intensely focused, lining up every single matchbox car he owns by color and body style and didn’t want to stop. Once in the car, getting into the seat and buckling the belt was a challenge because today that seatbelt strap would not sit in the right place and hurt his belly. Once in the store you move through the store at a brisk pace, knowing that your time is limited. You purposely avoid the snack and chips aisle as you know nothing good can come from that – but there at the end of the row of condiments is a little cage attached to the shelf filled with the one thing you were trying to avoid. You turn quickly to avoid it, but he has already seen it. You give in and let him have it, because you know you are already on shaky ground. But regardless – you know he is overwhelmed, you know he is on sensory overload, you know that you were already pushing the limits – the meltdown ensues. The best thing probably would have been to let him continue to line up cars, but life happens. Some things can’t wait.

You have most likely been here before, but it always helps to have some new tools in your toolbox, new ideas for de-escalating that scene.

1. Try to remain calm. Easier said than done, but the calmer you can remain, the easier it will be for your child to regain control. Think about a time when you felt panicked, didn’t it help to have someone calm next to you? Is there a song or story that they like that you can calmly and slowly recite, some beacon of calm that they can grab onto in the midst of this chaos?

2. Take some deep breaths, using the 4/7/8 breathing method I explained in a previous post. Have your child do the breathing exercises, but only if you have taught them how to do this when they were in a calm state. When practiced during those calm times, breathing may help to de-escalate your child in times of heightened stress.

3. Reasoning is out of the window at this point. Explaining that you know they wanted the red lego, but you only brought the green one will most likely make the situation worse. These kiddos are in fight-or-flight mode. Their brain is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, logic will have no effect. Instead, focus on making sure that your child is safe and remain calm (see #1).

4. Get down to their level. If that means sitting with them – sit. If they are standing – kneel so that you are at eye-level. Sometimes you many even need to lay down with them.

5. Distraction works best if you catch the meltdown early enough. A favorite toy, a sensory object, usually something familiar.

6. Try not to make demands. They would stop or calm down if they were able and it will not help to tell them.

7. Let them know that their feelings are OK, but their actions are not. For example, “I would be angry too if that happened, but it is not OK to hit your sister”. This lets them know that it’s OK to have emotions, but their response to those emotions may need to change.

8. The most important thing is to keep everyone safe. If there are people around that are offering help, let them. Have them move your cart away, if there are other items in the way, ask them to remove them. If people offer, they really want to help – just like those women in the article.

9. Do NOT worry about the stares and comments from strangers. They don’t walk in your shoes. Will you ever see them again? Probably not.

10. Lastly, take some time to let it all out after this happens. Do whatever you need to do to destress from the situation. Self-care becomes even more important on days like this. Fill your cup.

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