Repeated experiences of shaming are not good for a young child

The little boy, who looked to be about two, darted away in a fit of giggles. His young mother, who seemed thoroughly worn out and exasperated, ran after him, grabbed him by the arm and said in a harsh whisper, “You must stand here!”

We were on line waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight. For those of you not familiar with the Southwest system, there are no assigned seats. Rather, when a passenger obtains a boarding pass, a number indicates a place in line. Then before boarding, passengers line up according to the number they have been given. It is a very well organized system, but doesn’t necessarily work for a two-year-old.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened next. While I do not know anything about this mother-child pair, I have imagined many reasons why the situation unraveled as it did.

The above scene repeated itself two or three times. The mother had a companion, another young woman about her age, maybe a friend or her sister, who was fully absorbed with her phone for a few rounds of chasing before she looked up and said to the boy, “Do you want to watch a movie?” Immediately he stopped his darting and stood quietly looking at the phone, but the woman said, “You have to wait til we get on the plane.” He screamed and ran off again. This time he threw himself on the ground in the middle of the two lines of people (interestingly right at my feet-perhaps he sensed a sympathetic observer.) At which point his mother said in a loud voice, “If you don’t listen, all of these people are going to tell Santa you’ve been a bad boy!”

I was horrified, and might have even been tempted to intervene (probably not a good idea in the absence of frank abuse) but fortunately at that moment they began to board the plane.

So what went wrong? I start with the mother’s perspective. Likely she was experiencing a flood of shame and humiliation, as parents of young children do when they “act out” in public. On every radio interview I’ve had, I am asked about the dreaded “supermarket scene,” another place where a child must conform to the rules under the watchful eye of the general public.

The fact is that the “public eye” is generally either sympathetic or too involved in their own life to even notice. Yet shame pervades. In this situation it must have been particularly intense, as the mother passed this shame on to her son. She put the experience of humiliation directly in to him with her comment about Santa.

Next, I go on to the four aspects of holding a child in mind, as I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes.

The first is to be curious about the meaning of behavior. I wonder if this boy had some difficulties processing sensory input. As I mention in a previous post, a recent study showed that sensory over-responsiveness occurs in 25% of cases of problem behavior. An airport is a very difficult place for a child with sensory processing problems. Or perhaps he had just had a difficult separation- an event that may precede a trip on a plane. Or he may simply have been tired or hungry.

The second component is empathy. His mother, likely because of her own distress (see step four) was particularly unempathic, not recognizing how even in the absence of the above possible stressors, standing still can be a challenge for a two-year-old.

The third component is regulating and containing behavior. The little boy likely felt very stressed by this out of control situation. He needed help containing his experience. The mother’s companion was on the right track in offering the phone. He needed something that would help him to regulate himself. Reading a book, offering a movie or game, or even a snack, might have helped him to feel less out of control.

The last, and most difficult, is to manage your own distress. This mother might have been tired herself, might have been angry with her companion for being so unhelpful, or any countless number of feelings, in addition to the shame I describe above, that can get in the way of seeing things from your child’s perspective. When a person is flooded with stress, the higher centers of the brain responsible for rational thought do not work well. Had she been thinking more clearly, it might have occurred to her that her companion could hold the place in line. She could have let her son run around before being confined to the plane. Likely the other passengers would have been fine with that.

It’s a lot to think about for such a tiny moment. But it deserves this kind of attention, because repeated experiences of shaming are not good for a young child. Who says being a parent isn’t the hardest job there is?

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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