Being in public is one of the most formidable challenges to face as a parent or caregiver of children with special needs or behavior disorders (or both). The stares, the judgment, the comments from strangers, along with your anxieties and stress, make a public outing excruciatingly hard.
Take our situation, for example. We are grandparents raising grandchildren with multiple special needs and behavior disorders, severe ADHD, and they’re twins. It’s a perfect storm for stressful public outings.
I rarely go out in public with them alone because it’s nearly impossible to keep them corralled. Being twins and boys at that, they tend to run off in different directions for fun. It’s not fun for this grandma with lifelong joint degeneration and arthritis in my feet.
Then add in autism, behavior and mood disorders, plus severe ADHD, and you’re going to see me doing my absolute best to keep them in line. But I promise it’s like herding cats. Not that I’ve herded cats before, but it certainly seems like this is as close as I can imagine.
You can use every parenting strategy, tool and technique in the book, but frankly, there are times when nothing works absolutely. If you see me out in town with my grandsons, you will rarely see me alone. My husband and I team up, or my daughter (the boys’ mom) and I do, and even we struggle together.
Why do I bring this up? Because the few times I have been in public alone with the boys, I felt truly alone. I sensed the judgment, noticed the stares and wanted so badly for someone to smile at me with that “parent” look. You know, the one that says, “I feel you, mama. I’ve been there, too.”
Let me tell you about when I was at a local clinic, not long after we’d taken on raising our grandsons, and they were attending behavioral therapy. I started out taking them at the same time. It was once a week. How hard could it be? I gravely miscalculated this tactic.
It was more like driving one grandma nuts and leaving her in a crying mess on the floor, up against the wall, in front of the main entrance. My anxiety was at its peak, and I’d had enough.
It was the early days before we knew their diagnoses and learned how to apply collaborative parenting techniques to manage their behavior.
Neither boy would listen. They ran off in separate directions multiple times and no matter how hard I tried, they wouldn’t hold my hand and calmly walk across the building, out the doors, across the walkway to the parking garage to our car.
At that moment, the car seemed a million miles away through my teary eyes as I watched people busily walk past, either glancing in what I saw as judgment or they didn’t even glance at all.
I desperately wished I had a companion or friend who could help me navigate these appointments. And maybe there was a service available at the time. I wasn’t aware of it then.
But as I sat there, crying, doing my best to keep the boys with me while I was giving up making it to the car, it was as if I wasn’t there to the passersby. What I needed most was someone, just one person, to stop and ask, “Can I help you?” and I would have gladly said yes.
But no one did.
Now, I make it a point to notice those parents — the ones that were like me, frazzled and a mess, trying to corral kids, bags, carts and strollers — and offer my assistance. It doesn’t matter if they accept or not. The offer is enough. I scheduled separate appointments for the boys after that day. Lesson learned!
Then there was the time at a local grocery store when we were attempting to take the boys out separately and alone. We thought maybe if we did that, it would be easier to navigate errands, have some bonding time and help us all learn to handle public outings much better. It went well, actually, for a time. My anxiety prevented me from continuing that practice.
Side note: Because I have the option to leave the boys at home with my husband or shop and run errands on school days or weekends when they are at their parents’ that’s what I choose to do for now. I know this isn’t the case with everyone. If you’re that parent, please ask family and friends for help. Most of our loved ones want to help. They don’t always know how. Be specific about your needs and let them assist you. You can’t do it alone, nor should you have to.
When I was out in public with my autistic grandson, it was always incredibly nerve-wracking. I never knew if and when he might have a meltdown. I walked on eggshells the entire time. Anything could set him off and there was and still is no planning those moments. You can figure out some triggers, but they don’t always remain the same.
As it was, we were finishing up a relatively successful grocery trip. There were no meltdowns, and my grandson calmly accepted when he couldn’t get everything he wanted. He was happy with his small grocery bag filled with a few items he’d picked out from the list for him and his brother.
We made it to the checkout, where I inwardly sighed in relief. We’d almost made it out the door without an incident. Then my grandson saw the colorful bath bombs, which he mistook for candy. He asked for one, and when I explained they were for bath times, not candy, he started the beginning stages of a meltdown.
He tightly crossed his arms, pooched his bottom lip out and hung his head. Then the telltale darting eyes told me we were heading into level two, right before an all-out meltdown of epic proportions. It was going to be the type of meltdown in which I’d have to physically carry him out and leave the cart behind with apologies to the cashier.
I could’ve reacted with anger, frustration, irritation, or any number of negative ways. Instead, I remembered my training. Stay calm and don’t add to my grandson’s chaos with my own. Help him navigate his mix of emotions — confusion, desire for something he can’t have, anger, the frustration of his own.
He was a 5-year-old with a still-developing brain trying to process the same emotions I was processing as an adult, and even I was struggling!
Then, to add to the anxious and extremely stressful moment, a woman in line behind me spoke up. “If that were my kid, I wouldn’t allow him to act that way.”
I’d heard about this happening from other special needs parents and caregivers. I remember being that kind of person when I was younger, a first-time parent, and thought parents with unruly kids in public were terrible parents. Oh, how karma comes back around.
I had hoped and prayed it never happened to me. But it did. And I had a moment to decide how to respond. I could snap at the woman in line and tell her off, setting a horrible example for my grandson on how not to resolve conflicts. Plus, it would have escalated into an awful and public confrontation. Or I could pause and take a moment to assess the situation and decide if I should even respond at all.
I decided to respond because I’m a teacher at heart. This moment was the perfect setting to help educate the others around me about compassion and understanding.
I used my favorite response, which defuses a tense situation, acknowledges the other person’s feelings without compromising yours, and is a polite way of saying, “Mind your own business.”
I said, “Thank you for letting me know how you feel.” I could have stopped there, and sometimes I do. But I decided to keep going and said, “The thing is, this is my grandson, he’s autistic, and this is our first successful public outing. He’s doing a great job managing his emotions right now compared to how it used to be.” Then I finished paying and gathering my things, but not before noticing the look of shock and embarrassment on her face.
Embarrassing her was not my goal. Educating her was my intention, and letting my grandson know that I’m going to advocate for him wherever I am. Plus, I wanted him to hear me praise him for his great job managing his emotions. But, if she felt embarrassed, that’s her issue to resolve, and hopefully, she walked away that day having learned a lesson in compassion.
He never made it through a full meltdown because I remained calm and soothing in my responses with him, and we’d practiced emotion coaching for two years at this point.
My point is this: If you can be anything, please, be kind. You never know what someone is going through, whether it’s a parent or a child. For as many diagnosed children, there are also undiagnosed children. Same with adults.
How many of us, as parents and grandparents, struggle to manage our emotions? Many of us were either never taught how to do so or have made it this far in life undiagnosed with certain conditions or special needs.
Most people are doing their best, and we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Notice those around you, not with a critical eye, but with love and compassion. Offer assistance, and be willing to accept it as well. As the Good Book says, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Wise words from a wise man.