It’s My Party and I’ll Meltdown If I Want To

Mum & Liam ferntree

Ah, the dreaded meltdown in a public place! How many parents have war stories about tantrums in the supermarket or shopping mall, in full view of a disapproving gaggle of shoppers (who all clearly think you are the World’s Worst Mum or Dad)? And isn’t it uncanny that the more tense and stressed you are, the more your child seems to ramp up the tanty, as though he or she can smell your fear?

Will we ever make it to the bank on time? Will we be late picking up Junior Tech Support from daycare (again!)? Will we get home in time to unload the shopping and prepare a meal that can be eaten before 9PM? Is there any wine in the fridge?

These are just some of the random thoughts that would drift through my mind during one of Happy Chin’s epic toddler tantrums. He really threw himself into it. One of the things I couldn’t help but admire was how authentic he was (and still is). This holds for toddlers in general actually. If they’re upset they’ll just throw themselves to the ground and wail hysterically. There’s no attempt to hold back or disguise their feelings. I often wish I could do that when everything gets too much, but then I reflect that we probably get enough curious stares in the supermarket.

Happy Chin had so many tantrums that I got in some really good practice at various coping strategies. I quickly worked out that shouting at him to stop wasn’t much use, ditto physical violence (which I’m opposed to and have only ever done when pushed to the absolute limits of human endurance, although I have had passers-by advise me that what HC needed was “a good smack”). Picking him up and marching off to the car, writhing child under one arm and shopping abandoned, did certainly work until he got too big. Not a very practical strategy if you want to eat though.

The most effective coping technique I found was just to wait it out. Eventually Happy Chin would exhaust himself and provided I could keep his flailing limbs from getting too near any big stacks of cereal boxes or baked bean tins, then he wasn’t really hurting anyone. Other shoppers just had to negotiate their trolleys around him, or else come back to the confectionery aisle later. I, meanwhile, would attempt to adopt a kind of Jedi/Zen-like state of mind, breathing deeply and striving for calm within, trying to find a mental place far, far away from “Clean up in Aisle 5! Clean up in Aisle 5!”

Actually, learning to block everything out and take yourself off to a mental happy place is quite a useful thing for a parent. When I was a childless person, I used to marvel at my sister’s seeming inability to hear her child asking her for a biscuit for the twentieth time that morning. Can’t she hear him at all? I wondered. What is the matter with her? Motherhood must have really fried her brain! It was only much later I realised that her mind was elsewhere entirely, probably strolling along a beach in the Maldives or getting her hair done by Brad Pitt.

Back then, I was also acutely conscious of what other people thought. Happy Chin was our first child, and we had no idea at all of the journey ahead of us or the challenges we’d face. There were some books available, but none of them seemed to help with the complex behaviours we were encountering. Magazines all featured pictures of happy, smiling tots and the main difficulties the parents seemed to face were colic and sleeplessness.

So we made it up as we went along. Trial and error, late night internet searches, one or two terrific mentors (thank you, Australian Tuberous Sclerosis Society!) and lots of tears ensued as we muddled through. No one else seemed to be in our situation, and I feared taking HC out in public. I just couldn’t face the judgmental looks. We took to almost hiding him away, venturing out to the park or to my sister’s home and that was about it. Shopping became a thing that happened at ten o’clock at night when he was in bed.

It’s funny to look back now on how worked up I got about what other people thought. One elderly man actually tutted at Happy Chin as he stepped gingerly around him during one epic meltdown. I’ve completely forgotten what the tantrum was even about, but I remember snapping, “If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!” at the man as he beat a hasty retreat. Stupid old goat, I thought furiously, his wife probably raised his kids while he was at work. What would he know?

Another time I noticed a middle aged woman staring at us in the supermarket queue. Happy Chin was busy grabbing things and throwing them out of the trolley. My Zen had deserted me that day and I was flustered and embarrassed, scurrying around on my hands and knees trying to collect our items. (Incidentally, why isn’t there an express lane for parents with special needs children? There should be. And why can’t I get a disabled parking permit for my able bodied autistic child who can certainly walk, but who breaks away from me and runs out in front of cars? Surely public places can make more convenient parking spots to accommodate the needs of varying types of people? Anyway).

We finally got through the checkout and were beating a swift retreat to the carpark, when the woman stopped me.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“What?” I snapped. My mind had been busy working itself up to a fine head of steam imagining how she was judging me, and what right had she? Let her walk a mile in my shoes! What would she know? Her children were probably all perfectly behaved, etc, etc. I also needed to get HC to the car fast, or lose more groceries to the floor.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but your little boy reminds me so much of my grand-daughter. She has autism.”

To say I was ashamed of myself would be putting it mildly. This lovely lady, far from thinking I was a bad parent and my child a brat, had actually been thinking fondly of her own special little person. She hadn’t been judging me at all, but I sure as hell had been judging her!

I mumbled a brief “Oh, really? How nice,” and shot away to the car, cheeks burning.

That day marked quite a turning point for me. I didn’t magically stop caring what other people thought, but I stopped trying to look into their minds, and I stopped assuming people always thought the worst of me. Ultimately, the tantrum your child is having is your child’s problem, it has nothing to do with you. It’s not a reflection on how poorly you are doing as a parent.

To borrow a snatch of dialogue from one of my favourite books:

“People are watching!”

“Let them, and I trust they’ve a fine day for it.”

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