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What to Do When You Witness a Child 'Misbehaving' in Public

My daughter had several loud, long drawn out meltdowns at the store today. Multiple adults stared, several made comments (“You are being ridiculous.), none of which helped me, my daughter or her siblings. They only added to her meltdowns and our sense of helplessness. My daughter happens to be on the autism spectrum and was having an unusually sensitive kind of day. It wasn’t any of these adults’ jobs to recognize autism, although my initial anger and frustration boiled from their lack of empathy of the fact that she was clearly struggling. I wanted to point out, “Hey, she has autism, cut us a break.”

Later, as I went on a therapeutic run, a plea grew in my mind, and I want to share it with you:

If you see a child in the store or any public arena having a meltdown, please have empathy. The child may be autistic, bipolar, hungry, tired. The child may be going through the loss of a loved one or struggling with bullies. In your short observation of the child’s behavior, you aren’t able to see what is under the surface, what triggered the behavior.

I think you are trying to be helpful when you offer advice and correction, but please realize your 10 seconds of “parental” correction is anything but helpful. The parent who is with the child has been parenting them for years. Your transient attempt at correcting   another adult’s child will only succeed at further frustrating and hurting a family clearly at its max. The child is not going to miraculously respond to your correction and say, “You are right, I am behaving ridiculously, I’ll straighten out now, just for you.” (If only it were so easy.) And trust me, that parent is not going to go home and say, “Wow, if only I told my child their behavior was ridiculous more often, they might be better behaved.”

If you truly desire to be helpful instead of just unkind (I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt), please don’t offer advice, correction or opinions about the child’s behavior. It will only add to the stress of that family’s day.

What you can offer:

Graciously allow them to go in front of you in the checkout line.

Offer them a gentle knowing smile.

Offer to help them empty their cart or offer to carry their groceries.

If you can’t offer anything, please just ignore them. Trust me, the inconvenience and interruption the meltdown caused to your day is far less than what it caused for them and their family. Please remember, you never know why the child is having a meltdown. Please don’t judge.

mom and two daughters in the car

This goes beyond meltdowns in grocery stores. The world would be a much kinder place if we all took a moment to think before we speak and if we gave people the benefit of the doubt instead of judging harshly. You never know what others are going through or struggling with.

Kindness, love, mercy, empathy, patience, and understanding. Practice these things, and you could change lives, including your own. You will find yourself with far more peace than if you spend your life judging, angry, and unsympathetic. Everyone wins… including this autism mom just trying to get groceries and her autistic daughter struggling to understand the world and wondering why strangers are being so mean to her.

Top photo via Thinkstock.

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