I am the mom of two boys, ages twelve and sixteen. My oldest son has Down’s, and both my boys have autism. Before I had kids, I pitied moms whose children were throwing tantrums in public. I felt sorry for both the mom and the child. I figured the child was acting out, due to fatigue, hunger, etc., and the people that rolled their eyes or even scolded, I thought they were jerks. I knew enough to know that it was a situation not easily controlled. Punishing or yelling at the child will make it worse, and sometimes the child is so wound up getting them to the car can be difficult.
When my youngest was born, I knew from the beginning that he was strong willed. He got fussy when he did not get his way, although he does have a delightful personality. He is very independent and likes things a particular way. As he grew into toddlerhood, he started having tantrums that were what I considered “beyond the norm.” Before he could start preschool the pediatrician advised I get him evaluated. The process took awhile, but after two separate psych evaluations he was diagnosed PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder-nonspecified), which fits under the umbrella of autism. I had suspected Autism, but this was still back in the infancy of awareness of Autism, when the different types of Autism were just starting to be talked about. Interestingly enough, my oldest was observed as having autistic characteristics by a school psychologist. He had “stimmed” a lot as a toddler, lined things up a lot, was resistant to change, and was nonverbal.
These toddler years with my youngest were turbulent. Most days were punctuated with at least one severe tantrum, and public outings were nearly impossible. It was hard to make people understand my son has sensory issues and being around a lot of people triggers anxiety in him sometimes. Plus he liked to rearrange things in the store. If he saw something in the wrong place, he just had to put it in the “right” place or it would bother him. (Luckily he doesn’t do that much anymore, lol.) Sometimes outings could not be helped and I tried to steel myself against the onslaught of dirty looks and judgmental comments. If they could only walk in my shoes! A lot of times when a child acts out in public it has nothing to do with parenting skills or the child not behaving. Usually it’s a situation of an overtired or hungry child, or a child with a possible developmental disorder. I wish some people could understand that. Just because a child looks like what society considers “normal” doesn’t mean they don’t have an issue.
So I told myself if I saw another mom going through the same, I would try to be supportive and helpful, instead of judgmental. However, when encountering such an opportunity in my OB-GYN’s office a couple of years ago, I blew it. A little girl was angry at her mother and was throwing books on the floor. I had the feeling there was more going on than this child having a bad day. The mother seemed very kind and loving to this child even as the girl told her mom that she hated her. I felt so bad but didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there while other women in the waiting room were murmuring that the child needed to be spanked, as if that would have made the situation instantly better. In fact it would have just made it worse. I felt sorry for this mom but I didn’t know how to help soothe the situation without making it worse. I vowed if I saw that situation again I would try to say something comforting to the parent.
Recently I was in a drugstore picking up some subscriptions and there was a fussy toddler and her mom in the line in front of me. The girl was grabbing something she wanted and the mom wearily gave in, not wanting to cause a scene. The girl’s older brother took her out to the car while the mom paid for her purchases at the counter. She had a lot of items and a lot of coupons, and I was in a hurry and getting impatient. But then I remembered that I wanted to be a support to someone if they were in this situation, and I started talking to her. She explained her daughter didn’t feel well and that’s why she was fussy. She also said she was having some behavioral issues with her daughter that she didn’t have with her son. She looked so tired. I told her of my troubles with tantrums when my younger son was a toddler. I told her I understood and people could be judgmental. I wanted to be one less person judging her. I know it wasn’t much, but it would’ve meant the world to me if someone would have just offered understanding and compassion when I was in a similar situation.
So if you see a mom struggling with a screaming or fussy child out in public, please don’t criticize. At the very least, don’t judge. And it might be a good idea to lend a compassionate ear, if you can. It could make all the difference to a weary, struggling mom.