I’m hoping that I am not the only parent who some days feels a little terrified when they take their children grocery shopping, to a doctor’s appointment, or another public place where children are expected to behave in certain ‘angelic’ ways. Eeeeeeeek!
My children are neurodivergent and so they find new environments with lots of people, certain smells, fluorescent lights, and other new sensory experiences very stressful. Because they have never experienced compliance therapies or been parented in a way that shames or punishes them for ‘bad behaviour’, going out in public is pretty intense. It might involve squealing, climbing on furniture, yelling, lying on the ground, or running around. The longer we are somewhere, the more stressed we all get, and the more I notice people staring or scowling at us. Someone might say, “you’ve got your hands full” or scold one of my children, “you shouldn’t run around here.”
My family have a lot of preventative strategies we use. I have a part-time carer who helps us to get out and about. My children are never forced to go to places they don’t want to (i.e. going out is their choice). When we do go out somewhere stressful, we have iPads to distract, earphones, fidgets and favourite toys. But despite all of our best efforts, when we go out together as a family of disabled people, we rarely move or communicate in typical ways. We often end up with one of us completely overwhelmed and sometimes melting down. We often end up with a lot of people looking at us with disdain, or trying to intervene.
I am not one to ‘flip the bird’ at strangers or say something spectacularly witty or snarky, so instead I start taking really loud. I speak out loud to myself, to my children and to the strangers staring at us.
I say, “You’re doing so well. I know this is hard for you.” Then I point out what is hard for them about the experience, such as, “There are so many people here, and the lights are so bright.”
I think describing the sensory environment and their response is somewhat like ‘sportscasting’ a term coined by Magda Gerber for nonjudgmental, “just the facts” verbalisation of events. It is a term mostly used by parenting coaches for responding to childhood squabbles.
The reason this works for my family when we are experiencing overwhelm, is that these words, when said our loud:
- Calm me,
- Put words in my mouth that are kind instead of shaming or yelling,
- Remind me of my belief that my children are always doing the best they can in that moment,
- Make me focus on their needs and specifically what is overwhelming in the environment.
Saying, “You’re doing so well. I know this is hard for you.” affirms for my children that their mama loves them and trusts them and believes they are doing the best they can in the moment. Sportscasting helps them as disabled children to tune in to their sensory needs and hear words they can use in the future to describe what is overwhelming eg. “the lights are too bright here.”
When I say “You’re doing so well. I know this is hard for you” and sportscast what is hard for them loud and proud in front of strangers, it feels like I have put a shield around us. It wards off stares and scolds, and I often find people soften in their approach to my children. It reminds them that my children are doing the best they can; they are humans and not compliant child-bots. It also educates them about the sensory stresses we experience in everyday environments.
I still feel a little terrified going out with my children (not because of them. Because of the world). I still put all of our preventative strategies in place. But knowing that there is something I can do in the moment that helps us through total overwhelm (and practicing it often) means that we keep going out and we keep working on our skills and our family relationships while we do.
What strategies do you use to support your children and ward off criticism in public spaces? I’d love to hear, Briannon <3