How to Handle a Meltdown in a Public Place

how to handle a meltdown in a public place

How do you feel when your child has a meltdown in a public place?  Does adrenaline course through you? Does heat radiate through your body up to your flaming cheeks?

Maybe, like me, a dozen inner voices echo around your head,

“I knew we shouldn’t have come.”

“He’s three/seven/eleven years old now. Surely this shouldn’t still be happening?”

“If I’d called him over for a drink five minutes ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Everyone must be thinking what a spoilt brat he is. I bet they blame me.”

“Why can’t I just relax for once like those other parents?”

That’s exactly how I felt when I glanced up to see a boy banging my son over the head with a dodgeball at a trampoline park. As I raced over, not sure of what had happened before but knowing exactly what was going to happen next, my son launched himself at the boy. By the time I reached the court, my son had fled and an angry dad was trying to get my attention. As I turned to follow my son, the man shouted, “That’s right, just walk away when I’m talking to you!”

Looking back on that day, I thought about how much I’ve learned over the past few years about how to handle a meltdown in a public place.

We can’t always help getting triggered; seeing our kid causing mayhem in a crowded place is about as stressful as it gets. But we can plan ahead to manage the fallout in the least damaging way.

Five steps to handling a meltdown in a public place

Step One – Be as well-rested and soul-nourished as possible

A full night’s sleep may not prevent your child melting down, but you’ll handle things better if you’re not at the end of your rope to start with.

Step Two – Focus on your child

When other people are angrily clamouring for your attention after an incident, it’s easy to forget your child. But he’s the one who needs you first.

Check your child is safe. No matter what he’s done, avoid yelling. If you can manage it, offer a hug. Touch reduces stress and releases oxytocin, which promotes bonding.

My son and I hug many times each day, but even loving touch is too much when he’s flooded with negative emotion. Instead I give him water, tell him I love him, and lead him a secure, quiet place.

Step Three – Face the music

If you can, return to the scene of the meltdown.

After the dodgeball incident I approached the other parent and said, “Sorry I walked away when you were talking. I needed to know my son was safe.”

Let any other people involved have their say. They’ll feel heard and you’ll discover more about what led up to the incident. This will help you understand what triggered your child so you’ll be better prepared to talk about what happened with him later.

Thank the other people, apologise if appropriate, and explain – in your preferred way – that your child has special needs. (In my book, all children who get over-stimulated in public places have ‘special needs’.)

At the trampoline park I discovered that my son had marched onto the other team’s side of the dodgeball court and started shouting at them at close range for not following the rules. The other boy’s mother told me that her son had special needs too, which explained why he reacted the way he did. Both parents  thanked me for going back to talk to them.

Step Four – Help your child calm down

If your child is still overwhelmed when you return, do what you can to minimise stimulation in his environment.

After what happened at the trampoline park my daughter and I respected my son’s need for quiet and drove home in silence without listening to our usual audiobook.

We stopped at a drive-through Starbucks for fruity iced drinks to help my son cool down and feel better about the outing. Some people might see this as rewarding ‘bad behaviour’, but I don’t want my son to be put off visiting the trampoline park – it’s an important outlet for his psychomotor energy as well as an opportunity for him to get fit and to practise social skills and self-regulation.

Step Five – Talk with your child about what happened

Once your child is completely calm, gently and non-judgementally ask him about the incident. If he gets re-triggered and can’t talk about it say, “I can sense you’re still feeling upset. Let’s talk about this later. I love you.”

I’ve learned that there really is no point trying to have a constructive conversation when my son’s angry – it’s impossible to engage the reasoning part of his brain.

When your child eventually is calm enough to be able to discuss what happened, show that you understand what triggered him and appreciate the positive intention behind his behaviour (however hard to find).

After my son’s trampolining meltdown I said, “I can see that you have a deep sense of fairness, and that caused you to have a strong reaction when you thought the other children were breaking the rules. That sense of fairness will serve you well in your life. Let’s think about ways you can manage the strong feelings you have when something unfair happens in the future.”

Should you make your child apologise after a meltdown in a public place?

You’ll notice none of my steps include dragging an overwhelmed child back to the scene to apologise. I know social convention says I should, but it’s something I gave up a long time ago.

Children rarely choose to ‘misbehave’. When my son mixes with other people in busy public places he will get over-stimulated and – until he learns to handle his intense emotions – meltdowns will happen. If we never went out, he’d never learn to manage his reactions.

My son knows how to say sorry. Sometimes he spontaneously apologises after a meltdown, other times everyone just has to move on. Until other parents have walked a mile in my shoes I won’t worry about their judgements.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, don’t forget to appreciate yourself for the way you handled the situation. Public meltdowns are one of the hardest parts of parenting sensitive and intense children, especially if you have OEs yourself.

Even when things don’t go to plan, appreciate your positive intention and the fact that you did your best in challenging circumstances.

When was the last time your child had a meltdown in a public place?

How did you handle it?

Which of these steps works best with your child?

Have I said anything you disagree with? I’d love to hear your point of view. (Please be kind ;))

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Photo credit: Kenneth Dagenais

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10 thoughts on “How to Handle a Meltdown in a Public Place

  1. I really do feel if we could all, as parents, support and love each other through bringing up children (instead of judging) we would all be far less stressed and much more confident for it. I love the old African saying…It takes a village to bring up a child, and I can completely attest to its accuracy. There is no way I have the requisite skills to bring up my children to adulthood. I ask and am often given help in the areas in which I have weakness; and I hope I offer help to other parents who maybe struggling in areas that are maybe within my range of strengths. If we could only live in such a way that we wanted other parents to succeed; to encourage each other, help each other and be a shoulder to cry on when those naff days happen (and they will to all of us)….I don’t know but I would think it might have some wide reaching and very positive effects on society as a whole.
    I love this post. I love your honesty, your learning and the obvious love you have for your family.

    1. Thank you, Claire. Your comment reminds me of that Aldous Huxley quote,

      ““It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”

      Thank you for being part of my village. 🙂

  2. Love this post – it’s so on point! I’m finally learning that if I stay calm things are better – but that’s so hard to do. Thank you for this post!

    1. Some lessons I need to learn over and over, Mary! When I realised I’d actually managed to handle an incident in a vaguely constructive way, I thought I’d reverse engineer it to give myself with some pointers for next time – hence this post. 😀 Thank you for your kind words. By the way I’ve been loving all your posts recently… will be over to comment soon!

  3. I totally agree with both of the above comments. I lack patience on a good day, so always struggle to not lose my rag, even though I know things go better if I’m calm. I also often make the mistake of responding to other adults before my kids. I will not do this again- you’re right: my children need me more first, and are the most important. Thanks again- love your posts.

    1. Thank you Hannah – lovely to hear from you as ever. 🙂 As I said to Mary above, this post came about because for once I managed to handle an incident the way I wanted (kind of) so I seized the day and wrote down what I did for future me!

    1. Thank you, Heather – I hadn’t noticed I did that until you pointed it out! Yes a bit of soul-nourishment makes all the difference, doesn’t it?. 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Lucinda. Thanks also for sharing some parenting tips for us to put in our toolbox.

    Why do we always/often go to the adult first? Have we all been socialised to please adults and seek approval from them?? I’m sure we all care much, much more about the well-being of our child than the opinion of a stranger…and yet we often still put them second in those situations.

    And I’m with you. I never force a ‘sorry’. Sorries need to be felt not just stated, or there’s no real sorry in it.

    1. “Why do we always/often go to the adult first?”

      I know! Crazy, when we start to unravel it, right? I love deconstructing my unconscious processes and feeling like I’m able to navigate situations more mindfully!

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