The crowded aisle was packed with people, shopping carts and boxes being unloaded, not to mention shelves at a child's eye level full of enticing distractions. It was an over-stimulating and overwhelming environment even for an adult. As I waited to check out, I saw a young mom winding her way through the crowd towing her young son by the hand while he adamantly protested her grip.
Understandably frazzled by trying to shop and manage a small child at the same time, she said sternly, “You have to hold my hand because you’re not listening!” The child whined back through tears, “I’ll listen, I promise." I bet you know exactly what I’m talking about. I know that could have easily been me when my kids were small.
The thing is, I believe that without intending it, the unspoken message of this child-centric interaction was something like, "It's your responsibility to deal with all this stress. Since you can't, I'm going to have to punish you by holding my hand!" The problem was that it just wasn't possible in this overstimulating environment for this young child to “listen” (which means stay focused and do what mom says without getting distracted.) It was an unrealistic expectation.
So how could you implement a parent-centric approach to make these unavoidable excursions less frustrating and more pleasant?
Learn to recognize and anticipate the situations and times of day you know are stressful for you and your child.
Prepare ahead of time. Tell your child, “We’re going to go into the store now and it’s very crowded. I really love you and it’s my job to keep you safe, so while we’re in the store I’m going to need to hold your hand. I know you might not always like that, but it’s the best way for me to keep you safe.” That just shifts the whole thing off the child so they’re no longer responsible for their own overwhelm.
Have realistic expectations based on their age and stress-sensitivity. If it’s late in the day, give your kid a cheese stick before you go into the store (and give yourself one while you’re at it!)
See your child's behavior as a stress barometer.
When their behavior starts to escalate, Pause. Breathe. Connect. Interrupt with an unexpected joke, a hug or tickle or a bathroom break (where there is less stimulation.)
In addition to decreasing stress, you’ll give your child the reassuring message that they’re not on their own when they feel overwhelmed. This approach builds resilience and emotional regulation skills in your child and makes for a better, and maybe even enjoyable, excursion.