On-the-Spot Parenting: Dealing With Public Meltdowns

Once when my first son was a very young toddler, I scooped him up in order to leave a playground and he instantly reacted by beating the living crap out of me with his tiny, still-dimpled knuckles.

I don't think I'll ever forget that moment, really: my beloved child smacking my face in pure fury as I staggered blindly toward the car, my overwhelming internal reaction of anger (HOW DARE YOU?) and self-pitying sorrow (my god, after all I've done for you ... how could you?).

It was all made worse by the fact that people were watching, of course. It would have been bad enough if he'd chosen to go all Ike Turner on me in the privacy of our home, but the fact that his tantrum occurred in front of a large group of fellow parents—whose children were behaving angelically, at least in comparison—was like a pitcher of salt in my wound.


I was reminded of the Public Humiliation Factor the other day when this same child (now nearly 6 years old) had a fairly obnoxious meltdown in his gymnastics class. He'd stubbed his toe and commenced to lying on the floor shrieking "NO! NO! NO!" while scootching away from the kindly teacher who was trying to help him. This has long been one of his most challenging behavior issues—the overly dramatic reaction to small hurts and the absolute refusal to allow anyone to 1) approach or 2) withdraw so he can suffer privately (it's like he wants an audience to stand nearby and absorb his howls)—and I was dismayed that it seemed we'd made such little progress.

Plus, this is a class where all the parents sit around and watch from a nearby waiting room. As my son writhed around blatting like a dying goat, everyone started doing the slow chair turn to see what I was going to do.

I went in and called him over, feeling uncomfortably on the spot as all the adults curiously watched. (Truthfully, it was probably an entertaining distraction from their own kids' millionth awkward somersault.) I tried to comfort him, and when he continued whining "Noooooooooo," I gently reminded him that acting like that wasn't going to make him feel any better. I asked him what he wanted me to do ("
Noooooooo ...") and eventually I told him through gritted teeth that if he couldn't pull himself together, we were going to leave.

The whole thing was just a thousand times more frustrating and awkward than it would have been in private, because I felt like I was on a mini stage, demonstrating a parental technique for the crowd. Not only that, but that my observers were mentally giving me a failing grade, since I probably looked like a callous asshole for not simply kissing his boo-boo and making it all better. 

After our grim little chat, my son snuffled a bit more, then re-joined the class, and he was fine after that. I went back and sat down and thought how I wished the resolution to his problem would have involved him accepting a hug, instead of me eventually dishing out a threat. But that's where we're at with this particular issue right now: hugs don't work. Believe me, I've tried.

It makes me think of the pre-parenthood times when I've watched someone struggling with their kid and internally criticized their technique, and how I wish I could go back in time and kick myself right in the ass for doing so. It also makes me think how insanely, tearfully grateful I'd have been if someone in that gymnastics waiting room (or way back at that playground in 2006) had leaned over and murmured, "Oh man, my kid does that sometimes too—doesn't it

Do you find it more difficult to handle kid-related challenges in public?

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