A Plea from Your Friendly Pediatric Professional - Stop Judging
I debated about this post, or well, more like rant. I feel like these words shouldn't need to be said, but then I had something absolutely heartbreaking happen in my office today.
It's spring time, the weather is getting warmer and many of the children are finally getting outside after a long winter spent behind the same 4 walls. Often I see bursts in language and communication development during this time as they see new places and discover new treasures. I asked Sarah's mother how the weekend went, hoping to hear a wonderful story about a playground adventure given the gorgeous 70 degrees weather we experienced.
Sarah's mother looked to the floor, a sure sign that things did not go well. She pressed her feet into the carpet as she explained, "Sarah likes the swings on the playground, but she does not like to leave."
"Really? Tell me more."
"Well, when I tell her it's time to go, she sits down, runs away and throws a tantrum. Then all the other parents are looking at us. It's embarrassing," Sarah's mother looked at her daughter briefly before her eyes went back to me for reassurance.
"Three year olds have tantrums, all parents know and have dealt with them. Tantrums are typical in a 3 year old, especially when they don't want to do something. Could it be these parents were just looking because there was noise and commotion?" I tried to offer alternative reasons and reassurance while still acknowledging the pain of rejection.
"Sarah's tantrums are worse because she is nonverbal. Typical three year olds can tell you have they feel."
"Even a typical three year old does not use her words in a tantrum. Tantrums are behavioral communication, which is a strength for Sarah," I tried to explain facts rather than focus on what's lacking or get caught in a whirlwind of comparisons.
"Well, it's embarrassing and I cannot stand the looks. I don't think we can go to the playground."
My heart sank in that moment. Sarah is a kind and brilliant young girl. She communicates using behaviors, gestures and signs. She struggles in times of transition without strong support and she struggles with sensory overload. She deserves to be outside with her peers to help her learn to use her body and interact with others. Her behavioral challenges, which are not atypical in that moment, should not limit her experience and will only become stronger without experiences now to build on.
Cut It Out
If you're a parent that can say you've never dealt with a temper tantrum, please send me your information so I can learn from you. Otherwise, listen up.
The years between 2 and 4 are meant for tantrums as our children learn to express their opinions and stand their ground. We want our children to fight for their rights and as a child, these rights are their toys and play time. Yes, we want them to fight hard, and it's on us to teach them the rules of this fight.
I hear about judgment and embarrassment too often from the parents I work with. This creates a fear about being out in public. For the children I work with, this is devastating as their success is dependent on continuous and dynamic social interactions. Staying home in fear, while a valid safety precaution, only makes this problem grow with the child. Lack of outbursts do not make them go away, processing and dealing with them in a nurturing environment does.
I could make this post about how to de-escalate a tantrum and ways to avoid them, but I'm not because I'm mad. I'm mad about the fact that Sarah will not go on a playground anytime soon. I'm mad this isn't the only time I have heard or will heard this story. I'm mad at our community for not banding together when we see a fellow parent in distress.
Cut it out. If you're a parent, you've been there before so let your empathy kick in, instead of your opinion. If you're not a parent, you have absolutely no room to judge, so just mind your own. Let's go on another journey...
Picture yourself in Whole Foods near the by-the-pound cookies. Such a beautifully tempting display of tasty delights! You're not looking at the cookies though, you're putting together your lunch at the hot bar. All of a sudden you hear a shriek behind you and a flop! caused by approximately 30 pounds hitting the floor. Your eyes dart to that direction to find a just-barely-three year old, red face to the floor, fists clenched and flailing.
Quick fact check:
Is the parent gone?
Is the child in danger?
Do you know this child?
Does the parent look like they need help?
If you answered "no" to all of these, go back to sprinkling feta crumbles on your romaine.
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, only then should you proceed with caution. Best advice, give the parent a reassuring and comforting glance; a "namastay" of sorts and continue to ignore the child. Tantrums are attention seeking and manipulative beasts; if you feed them, they will grow. Always, always, always ask for permission before interacting with someone else's child!
Bullying doesn't stop in school, it continues through adulthood and parenthood. Practice what you preach and just stay out of other parents' situations.