By Paige Sollins, LCSW-C
Leaving the grocery store and loading bags into my car, I was startled by an alarming yelp and scream. A young child with a mini-shopping cart started to walk into the street while her mother was just exiting the store. Panicked, the mother ran over to her child and pulled the child and the cart back onto the sidewalk. With fear and rage, her mother yelled “YOU ARE BAD!” The child was crying.
How scary to see your child in danger with potentially devastating consequences. We can only imagine how fearful this mother was when her child wandered into the busy parking lot, just out of her reach. Her reaction and choice of words was clearly fueled by fear and adrenaline.
Observing this brought up many questions. What should a parent do? What was the child thinking? Where are the teachable moments, the opportunities for the child to learn a new behavior and make a different choice next time?
In this situation, the child heard she was “BAD.” In actuality, this child is not a “bad” person; her actions were unsafe. It isn’t about who she is, but what she did. It is very possible that she wasn’t misbehaving, she just didn’t know that wandering into the parking lot was dangerous. How does she learn that? Though it is understandably hard in that scary moment, it is important to consider what lesson you would like your child to learn from the experience.
Responding to your child’s behavior is much more effective than reacting. Reacting is often more impulsive, guided by strong emotions and typically leaves the other person feeling upset or hurt. Responding is guided by purpose, requiring you to stop, consider the child’s point of view and what you want to accomplish with your words and encourages learning.
To think of a way to respond appropriately, consider that a child does not understand the danger of crossing the street and the importance of waiting to cross with their parent. Children, especially young ones, are unaware of the expectations and don’t have the same judgment and forward thinking skills that adults have. Kids’ brains are still growing and developing. As parents, it is our job to teach them about the ways of the world.
What are some ways a parent can respond in these potentially dangerous situations?
- Initial Response
- Protect your child from immediate danger- guide your child back to the sidewalk or if they are out of reach, in a loud voice call out the child’s name and say “stop.”
- Express concern and send a feeling message. Tell the child “It scared me to see you walk into the street and think that a car could hit you.” Then say “I’m glad you’re safe.” Offer a hug to the child.
- Educate (at a later time — maybe on the ride home)
- Discuss with your child the dangers of moving cars and drivers not seeing people in the streets, connecting actions with consequences.
- Talk about safe ways to cross the street. For example, “when we cross the street we need to be connected in some way; holding my hand, my shirt or pushing the shopping cart with me. “
- Show kids how to look in all directions before crossing to make sure there is no traffic coming and to check that any vehicles that have stopped see you and give you a signal to go.
- Point out safe places for crossing the street and then have your child find the cross walks.
- Teach them what the traffic signals mean; which picture or color means “Don’t Walk” and which means it is okay to cross.
- Give your child plenty of opportunities to practice. Have your child tell you when it’s safe to cross together. Of course, you’ll also be checking to make sure it is a safe time.
Like all people, it takes time for kids to learn a new skill. Parents are life coaches presented with ongoing teachable moments, countless real world exercises and innumerable conversation starters. And remember, mistakes are learning opportunities, too – for your child and for you!
By Paige Sollins, LCSW-C, JCS Therapy Services
Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.