The public “meltdown”- whose side are you on?

We all know the moment – we see a child having a tantrum at the shops, a restaurant, the park, or (God forbid) on an aeroplane. No doubt, having seen it, we’ve passed our judgement and thought “oh no!” If we were to be truly honest, perhaps we’ve even gawked, rolled our eyes, offered some suggestion as to how the parent might better handle their child. We might assume we know/ could do better. The point is, rarely would we observe a situation like that and consider how the parent might be feeling. Even more rarely would be wonder whether or not the tantruming child has some kind of special needs or disability.
When children are tantruming (especially in public), parents experience doubt, frustration, guilt, anxiety, and judgement from others. Parenting a child is hard work. However, parenting a child with special needs comes with a whole new set of rules, treatment schedules, financial expenditures, school support needs, and overall necessity to coordinate, organise, and communicate. Also known as, extreme stress! The feelings of a parent who has a child that has been diagnosed with a disability are amplified by 10 thousand (at least). Granted these feelings can exist in abundance in any of us from time to time, but the research indicates that parents of children with special needs have higher levels of stress, especially when that child has associated challenging behaviour (Weiss et al, 2014).
So let’s have a closer look at ourselves and think about how we, as a community, can better support parents when we, and they, are faced with difficult moments in public. The research shows that parents of children with special needs who are supported, or even perceive being supported have more positive mood and better outlook on their circumstances (Trute et al, 2010). It makes sense that the research also shows when a parent has better outcomes managing their stress, then their child has better outcomes as a direct result (Totsika et al, 2013)..
In an effort to bring some understanding and acceptance to the situation, let me share with you one of the greatest lessons I learned when I became a “communication specialist” – behaviour IS communication. When a child is engaging in a “meltdown” or “tantrum” they are actually trying to communicate something. They are not deliberately setting out to be naughty for the sake of it; they are not trying to get under your skin on purpose; they are not specifically interested in trying to sound the alarms at the shops; they are not setting out on purpose to make your flight miserable. It is simply that behaviours like screaming, hitting, crying, dropping to the floor in stand-off mode happen to be very efficient and effective ways for a child (especially a child with special needs) to get their message across. Indeed, decades of research has told us that “problem behaviours” can be viewed as non-verbal attempts to communicate (Carr & Durand, 1985)
So what can we do the next time we see a child and parent having a “difficult moment” in the community? Well here are my two cents on how we can achieve a compassionate, understanding community of citizens who don’t assume first, but rather, observe the world with loving kindness… First, simply challenge ourselves to change our perspective and think about behaviour as communication rather than automatically assume that the child is simply “being naughty.” Other ways parents say we can give help in these moments include:

  • Give smiles of acknowledgement and understanding.
  • Directly ask if they need help.
  • As one parent put it, “If it’s not safety related and just a good old fashion tantrum, then I’d like a silent support network of smiling and nodding adults who are non-verbally cheering me on. Those actions suggest they’re saying, “You’ve got this…hang in there.”
  • Carry on with your business and let them figure it out as, parents usually know what is best for their child with special needs in that moment.

And this is what parents tell us they definitely DO NOT want:

  • Don’t stare – If a child doesn’t look typical or acts differently, parents are very aware of this. In fact, that’s all parents can see at first. Find something positive to say. For example, something as simple as, “What beautiful eyes” or “What a gentle soul” can be music to their ears.
  • Don’t interject and try to speak to the child directly.
  • Don’t tell them how they should feel.
  • Don’t tell them that they are being “noble” or that you admire them – Unless parents set out to adopt a child with special needs, they didn’t “want” this to happen. They don’t feel noble. At times, they even feel trapped and devastated. Showering them with potentially patronising compliments might only make them feel more isolated and lonely.
  • Don’t tell them things like “God only gives us what we can handle” – Parents of children with special needs are just trying to survive from one day to the next. Telling them that they should be able to handle their child’s diagnosis is an additional load to put on someone, who often doesn’t feel like he or she is handling anything well at all.

So parents, keep on doing what you need to do. No judgement here. And if you are ever in a place where you are feeling judged, as one parent said very well, “people are going to do what they are going to do and it’s up to us as parents to feel confident in whatever tactic, or lack thereof, we try to use.”


  • Carr, E.G., & Durand, V.M. (1985) Reducing behaviour problems through functional communication training. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 18, 111-126.
  • Totsika V, Hastings RP, Emerson E, et al. (2013) Is there a bidirectional relationship between maternal well-being and child behaviour problems in autism spectrum disorders? Longitudinal analysis of a population-defined sample of young children. Autism Research. Epub ahead of print 21 February 2013. DOI:10.1002/aur.1279.
  • Trute, B., Benzies, K., Worthington, C., et al (2010) Accentuate the positive to mitigate the negative: mother psychological coping resources and family adjustment in childhood disability. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 35(1):36-43.
  • Weiss, J., Wingsiong, A., & Lunsky, Y. (2014) Defining Crisis in Families of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice 18(8): 985-995.