How many times has a complete stranger made a comment to you or your child?
Probably more than you can count.
I never realized how interactive strangers could be until I became a mom.
Now, stop and think. How many times has a stranger passed judgement or given unwelcome, unsolicited advice during a difficult parenting moment? Say, during a public temper tantrum?
How did you react? What was your child’s response to the interaction?
I can tell you that I have been everywhere on the spectrum from fuming with frustration to stunned into silence.
Our Family “Fun” Day
“Let’s go to a basketball game!” My husband said enthusiastically one evening. He had planned out a whole “family fun day” which included going to a local university basketball game, and out to lunch with our 18-month old daughter.
I was cautiously optimistic.
This sounded like a great way to spend some quality time as a family on a cold winter day, but I wasn’t quite sure how our daughter might handle all the excitement. In spite of my reservations, I eagerly agreed to my husband’s plan.
I waited and planned all week, excited for our family fun day. Finally, when the day arrived, we loaded up the car with all things necessary – snacks, drinks, a few meticulously chosen toys and other knickknacks – and the three of us climbed into the car with anticipation. After a 45-minute car ride we arrived at the arena and got a great parking spot right near the gate.
Walking through the halls our daughter was so excited! She is normally a very outgoing and independent little girl and this day was no different, as she happily held our hands, a smile beaming across her face as we walked towards our seats.
Finally, we made it to our seats and settled in just in time to see the pregame show.
At first our family fun day seemed to be going amazing well, we were all having a great time, enjoying a new experience together, and then our day took a turn for the worse.
The lights flashed and music boomed as the starting lineup ran onto the court. As the applause rang out so did my daughter’s screams, as tears began to stream down her face.
I quickly tried to calm and reassure her but it was to no avail, so I scooped her up and ran back down to the concessions. For over 30 minutes I tried to calm her and wipe away her tears as she had an all-out meltdown, running away from me, throwing herself on the floor, her puffy red face alternating between calling out for me and condemning me all while onlookers passed by.
Unfortunately, it was well below freezing outside, and snowing, so I couldn’t take her outside and my husband still had the car keys so the car wasn’t an option either. With my limited options, I tried to contain her meltdown between the women’s bathroom and a vestibule by the entrance, the quietest and least crowded place I could find.
If you have ever been in a similar situation you know that it can be a trying moment for any parent, both working to keep your child safe in a public space and diligently striving to help them calm down. The last thing you want at that moment is a passerby’s input or “help”.
I can’t tell you how many times people walking by asked, “what’s wrong with her?”, “why is she doing that?”, or my personal favorite, “is your mommy being mean?”.
Not to mention the loads of advice that was heaped on me. Honestly, at that point it did not matter if the advice was well-meaning or not. I was at my wit’s end and did they seriously think I would not have considered “try to distract her” on my own?
So the question arises, as a positive parent, how do you deal with unwanted meddling and unsolicited advice when you are trying to handle a difficult emotional situation with your child?
I know a lot of responses come to mind. But. Positive Parents, remember?
How we handle these public interactions sets an example for our children on how they can handle difficult situations. While tempting, blowing your top off is not an option.
Here are a few hard earned lessons from my family “fun” day.
#1 Take a Deep Breath
As mental health counselor Debbie Pincus reminds us, first we need to calm ourselves so that we may be “[…] the anchor in the storm [….]”
The most important thing we can do as parents when our child is throwing a temper tantrum is to remain calm.
First, recognize that you may be feeling frustrated, overwhelmed or upset yourself and then take a deep breath and release all of those negative feelings. You need to avoid your own temper tantrum in order to help your child deal with theirs.
Just stop, take a few deep breaths, maybe even close your eyes for a few seconds and get yourself centered.
#2 Remember, Your Worth and Parenting Ability are NOT a Consequence of What Others Think
All too often we get caught up in what others think of us. People may pass judgement, but it is important to remember that they do not have all the information and never understand the situation fully.
In these times it is important for us to develop a thick skin and learn to let it roll off our backs. We are only doing the best that we can in the current situation and after all, we are only human.
During these difficult moments it is easy to let others hurt or anger us, but our personal worth and parenting ability are not a consequence of what others think of us. People often pass judgement based on their own inadequacies or inexperience. So stay centered and positive, despite others actions!
#3 Remember, You Know Your Child Best
You know your child better than anyone. You can anticipate their actions, understand their feelings, and soothe them in times of need. Ultimately they respond best to you and your actions. So during difficult parenting moments, even though it may not feel like it, remember that you know your child best.
People parent differently and as a positive parent, you know the boundaries and expectations that you have set for your child. If you stay consistent and remain positive, then you will be able to effectively navigate any situation.
#4 Use Your Parenting Tool Bag
Part of effective parenting is being able to adequately use your tool bag. Along with knowing your child best, comes knowing how to most effectively handle different circumstances. If you pay attention to your child, you will notice indicators that there may be a storm brewing and, may be able to avoid a temper tantrum altogether.
However, if you miss the indicators, like I did at the basketball game, then know when to use some of your other parenting tools, like:
- distraction, by changing the activity or location
- finding a quiet, secluded place to calm down to avoid overstimulation
- ignoring the unwanted behavior
- quietly talking to help calm and reassure your child
- holding or hugging your child to assist their recovery
- removing your child from the situation entirely
If you can identify the source of your child’s displeasure, then you will be able to appropriately choose the tool that would be most effective for that particular situation. If not, go with what your instincts say and make the best effort you can.
#5 Set an Example for Your Child in Dealing With Others
One of the best ways children learn is by modeling behavior. Children will respond in the same ways that they observe us behaving in similar situations. So even when a stranger walks up to you with unkind words about your parenting and you want to yell, or maybe cry, remember that even if your child is in the throes of a full-blown temper tantrum they can still observe how you interact with other people.
As parents, we continually strive to set a good example for our children by showing them what the appropriate behavior, or response, is in any given situation.
According to psychologist, Dr. Melanie Greenberg, there are many motives behind negative criticism. Recognizing the reason why someone has offered a negative criticism may help you to deal with the situation more effectively.
Although there may not always be an absolute “right answer” in how to deal with unwanted meddling and unsolicited advice, you may find the following responses helpful:
- ignore the passerby’s behavior, not dignifying their criticism with a response
- face the situation with humor and make light of their comments
- calmly acknowledge and dismiss their intrusion, with a smile and a firm but polite, “Thank you, I am handling the situation, have a nice day”
- decide that a good comeback is needed to stand up for yourself and set the record straight
The response you choose will likely depend on the situation and perceived motive.
I was in the grocery store one day, checking out, when my daughter “hangrily” (hungry and angry) threw her juice box on the floor. I turned around to pick it up when an employee walked over and said, “Oh she must think she’s at home and it’s ok to throw things on the floor.”
My immediate reaction was anger, because of course, I must allow my child to just haphazardly throw things on the floor adding to the mounting pile of garbage that we apparently wade through at home.
I can tell you that both mine and my daughter’s reactions to the grocery store situation were very different than those elicited at the basketball game. What I could teach her at each moment was also very different.
In this case I took the high road and chose to ignore the stranger’s comment. Obviously she was already upset or frustrated herself and engaging in what was sure to become a hostile exchange, one that could have ended with me being asked to leave the premises, was not on my schedule for the day.
The chances of me encountering that particular woman again are slim. What I chose to teach my daughter at that moment was something I learned a long time ago, “if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”
Again, there are many possibilities for what you may do or say when you are faced with unwanted and/or unkind parenting criticism. But remember that your child is watching and learning, so you may as well reframe the situation as an opportunity to set a good example and use it as a teachable moment on how to deal with others.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
It can be difficult in the heat of the moment to react the way you logically hope to and instead react in a purely emotional way. So just like when we work physically to develop muscle memory, we need to start planning to develop emotional memory for those especially challenging parenting moments. Today, take some time to ponder:
- What is my typical reaction to a public meltdown, tantrum or defiance?
- How would I like to react to those difficult situations?
- Create a mental image or scenario of a peaceful and calm place.
- What do I want to teach my child about interacting with others when they say things that may be hurtful or unkind?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
When we are faced with criticisms or unsolicited advice from strangers, it can be difficult to maintain our composure. But if we consider the following things as part of an ongoing action plan, then we can learn to handle these situations with poise and grace, all while setting a good example for our children. Moving forward:
- Anytime you feel yourself start to get frustrated, take a deep breath and center yourself using mental imagery.
- Each day focus on an encouraging parenting moment that you had with your child.
- Do a quick mental review of what you hope to teach your child about interacting with others.
- Try to avoid meltdowns/tantrums, when possible.
- When a stranger criticizes, resolve to use it as a teachable moment instead of letting it be a situation that causes frustration.