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4 Things Not to Do (and What to Try Instead) When You See a Child Having a Meltdown

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For many parents of children with special needs, public meltdowns are a fact of life. To better understand what does and doesn’t help parents when their children have public meltdowns, we reached out to our Mighty parents via Facebook.

Here’s what we learned:

1. This one may seem obvious, but don’t stand and stare.

When you notice a commotion at the grocery store or park, it can be difficult not to stare at first — especially if you aren’t used to being around children. But to parents who are busy caring for a distressed child, staring strangers only make a bad situation worse.

“I wish people wouldn’t act like they’ve never seen or heard a child cry until they laid eyes on my child,” Anna Perng wrote on Facebook. 

Instead — If you feel unsure of what to do, just keep walking.

This may seem counterintuitive, but many parents say that other than offering a quick smile or word of encouragement, the best thing you can do is ignore what’s happening. “Just keep it moving and let me do what I need to to keep my son calm,” Mandy Mandy said on Facebook.

Deborah Kline, whose child has autism, said she’d prefer the situation not attract any more attention than it already has. “Just keep doing what [you] were doing, as if it’s not happening,” she wrote on Facebook.

2. Don’t offer unsolicited advice or comments.

“Comments like ‘Ahh, she’s not happy!’ or ‘You need to put a leash on that one!’ are frustrating,” Melissa Cote, whose daughter has autism, said on Facebook. “Like we don’t already feel bad enough that our child is having a hard time. Now we have to wonder what others are thinking, too.”

Heather Rhone agreed. “Unless you’re going to give me a sympathetic smile as you walk by without saying or doing anything, I really don’t want you to do it,” she wrote on Facebook. “Once my child hits a certain point, there’s no amount of talking, admonishing or reasoning that’ll help. She’s got to work it out herself. ‘Helpful’ strangers are about the least helpful thing during a meltdown.”

Instead — be supportive and smile.

It’s simple, but sometimes the best thing you can do for someone in a difficult situation is smile and say something encouraging.

“Probably the best thing you can do is offer a sympathetic smile,” Elizabeth Pasten wrote on Facebook. “The most memorable people have said things like, ‘You’re doing a great job’ or commented on my patience and the techniques I use to calm down my son, like the deep pressure massage or tight hugs.”

I had a gentleman smile and say, ‘You’re doing a great job, Mom,’” Roberta Johnson said on Facebook. “I almost cried, it meant so much!”

3. Don’t try to help without asking first.

When you see a parent and his or her child in distress, it can be instinctual to immediately do what you can to try and help. But when we posed this question to our Facebook friends, several parents said they would prefer if people didn’t try to intervene without asking first.

“I never notice what others are doing or not doing because I am so focused on him,” Jennifer Brooks, whose son has autism, wrote on Facebook. “But one time, someone did intervene and while it distracted [my son], it also didn’t exactly help. I would have preferred they hadn’t done anything.”

Instead — ask first if the parent needs any help. 

Many parents don’t appreciate unsolicited help, but offering it can go a long way. Even if there isn’t anything you can do, your care and concern are what matter most. And sometimes, there’s something simple you can do to help — like assisting a frazzled mom with her grocery bags or watching one kid while the parent tends to another.

“I know I’m hyper-focused on my kid in that moment, but if my hands are full of bags or my purse is on the ground, I would love for someone to help me with my stuff, not my child,” Meghan Hanley wrote on Facebook.

In her post “When My Son Had a Public Meltdown, Everyone Stared and Judged. One Woman Didn’t,” Tanya Brodd wrote about taking her infant and 2-year-old with autism to the mall. Her older son Andrew had a major meltdown early in the trip, but Brodd was unable to console him while also holding her baby. Then a woman approached her and asked if she could take the baby for a moment while Brodd tended to her other son.

“I truly don’t know what I would have done without the help of this sweet woman,” Brodd wrote. “While others were judging me, she helped, and her compassion brings tears to my eyes to this day.”

4. Don’t assume the child is just being disobedient or refer to him or her as a bad example for your own children.

“It’s nice to hear [another parent] telling their own kids that mine is just having a hard time right now instead of being naughty,” Beth Klingbiel wrote on Facebook.

Jennifer Lovy, whose son has autism, agreed. “It drives me crazy when parents use Evan’s meltdown as an opportunity to show their child how not to behave or to reinforce their child’s exemplary behavior,” she wrote in her piece, “What to Do (and Not Do) When Your Child Sees Mine Having a Meltdown.” “I can guarantee my son isn’t upset because I won’t let him have a cookie or because it’s time to leave the playground. More likely, he’s bothered by a sight, sound or smell that you or I barely notice but to him is an all-out assault on his nervous system.”

Instead — if you’re with children of your own, talk with them about why the other child might be having a hard time.

Some parents, like Lovy, say they would prefer if parents explained what was going on to their kids rather than shushing them or avoiding acknowledging the situation. “The next time you see a child with ‘bad’ behavior or physical differences, it’s OK to use him or her as a teaching tool. Just do it the right way,” she wrote. “By avoiding their questions you’re actually showing them there’s something wrong. Instead, use this as an opportunity to educate your children; often, a simple explanation will suffice.”

Editor’s note: Some responses have been edited and shortened.

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Originally published: May 1, 2015
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