You’re waiting to check out at the store when a mother and son get in line. The kid’s whining, and Mom’s slumped shoulders show she has more on her hands than in her shopping cart.

“I want a candy bar,” the son says.

“No, we’re going to lunch next,” Mom says.

“I want the candy bar for lunch,” the kid insists.

Mom’s unfazed. “I said no.”

Suddenly, the son screams, cries, and stomps his feet. Mom stares at him but holds her ground. The kid falls to the floor and turns on the tears.

We’ve all seen this happen. Heck, our own kids may have done this to us in the store. The natural reaction for people is to look at the child, then when the crying continues, they stare at Mom. Make him stop, more than one person thinks. What a spoiled brat. What kind of parent lets a kid do that in the store, anyway?

Even if that’s not what people are thinking, Mom believes they are. She feels judged and belittled. She might do whatever it takes, including buying the candy bar, to shut the kid up. It’s the wrong thing to do, but Mom wants the judging to end.

You can’t blame people for looking. It’s natural to want annoying behavior to stop. And it’s easy to assume an “out of control” child equals bad parenting.

But it’s important to remember that Mom is trapped. Attention increases behavior, so if Mom gives in to the fit, she’ll have to deal with another one the next time she says no, too. It’s normal for the kid to escalate his fit; that’s how he figures out whether Mom means what she says. (He might even know Mom’s embarrassed by his behavior and desperate to make it stop.) We call this “the extinction burst,” which is a fancy way of saying things get worse before they get better. The child isn’t getting what he wants, so he acts out even more to test Mom’s resolve. If Mom holds her ground and doesn’t give attention to the outburst, the kid eventually gives up and starts learning that fits don’t work for him.

There are other reasons for fits, of course. Sometimes, the child is tired, or antsy, or even has the influence of a disorder such as autism or ADHD. The child may simply be at his breaking point. With autism, meltdowns even serve a point; they help the child release pent-up frustrations so he can function again.

A colleague of mine once ran into this with her own child. Her son wanted her to buy something, and when she said no, he went into a full meltdown. He flopped to the floor, yelled, kicked his feet, and waved his arms. People stopped what they were doing and watched, the perfect audience for his fit.

My colleague turned her attention away from her son and stared back at each person watching the show. “Would you mind not watching him?” she said. “We’re working on something here.”

Ashamed, the people turned away. She then browsed through the shelves while her child worked through his anger. And eventually, as quickly as it started, the fit stopped.

So what can we do when we see a parent in this predicament? As long as there’s no abusive behavior from the parents, the best thing you can do is just go about your business, let Mom ignore the fit, and be thankful that you’re not in her shoes.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He’s in private practice at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. For an in-person or online appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

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