How (and When) to Intervene When You See a Mom Struggling in Public
Every mom has been there. You're out in public, maybe getting groceries, mailing a package, or waiting to board your plane at the airport, when your child decides to flip the f*ck out. You start by trying to sweetly soothe the beast, praying that the tantrum will be short-lived. When it keeps going, you do your best quiet-yell voice (also known as the extremely firm whisper) combined with the hard stare, letting your kid know you mean business.
When that still doesn't work, you start to sweat and weigh your options: attempt to physically restrain your flailing child, knowing that will only escalate the situation; abandon your task and tend to your kid in a less public space, even though you really need those groceries; or just sit down and cry. Somehow, you survive, finding the alchemy that defuses the meltdown, deciding you'll return to the post office another day or relying on the kindness of strangers who help get your kid on that plane. But from that day on, you know your child has the potential to torpedo any public outing, and you just pray it never happens again.
Every mom has also been on the other end, watching a mom struggle with a child who's decided to save their worst behavior for a time when they could show it off to an audience. You probably felt that mom's pain and wanted to do something to help. But what? And is getting involved even appropriate? Here are the dos and don'ts for helping a mom who's struggling with her kid in public.
- Do evaluate the situation to see if your involvement would actually be helpful or just add to their stress. If you're not sure, ask. Extra points if you ask if you can do something specific instead of just asking if you can help in general. Even if she says no, she'll still appreciate the offer.
- Do engage in small kindnesses like opening doors or returning her grocery cart as much as possible.
- Do give her as many sympathetic looks and short words of encouragement and reassurance as you'd like. Compassion is never appreciated more than in moments of struggle.
- Do feel free to buy her coffee when you see how hard it's been for her to get through the line. She really needs that coffee.
- Do identify yourself as a grandma, mom of three, or uncle of 12 if you're trying to help. She wants to know that you're experienced and not just a weirdo who wants to engage with her kid.
- Do intervene if her child is putting themselves in danger (i.e., running into the street).
- Don't attempt to approach or touch a child without the parent's permission. You have little information about what's really going on. Don't assume you know how to handle the meltdown better than the parent does.
- Don't offer advice about how mom could be better dealing with the situation. She's doing her best.
- Don't start unloading grocery bags or approach a car without asking first. Stranger danger is a thing for adults, too.
- Don't offer the child candy or any other kind of treat. Just don't do it. You're only making Mom's life more difficult.
- Don't stand and stare. No one wants spectators for their child's worst moments. Tantrums happen, so if you can't help, offer a sympathetic smile and move on.