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What To Do When Your Kids Don’t Cope With Crowds

With holidays approaching (again!) you might be planning a holiday, family gathering or social event where the children will be placed in a group or crowd situation that they might not be entirely comfortable with. If your child suffers from social anxiety, is overwhelmed in new or group situations, has sensory issues or is simply prone to the odd public meltdown or temper tantrum, this article is for you!!

An ounce of prevention…

As they say, prevention is better than cure so if you know your child’s triggers, it is best to avoid them or take whatever steps you can to minimise an adverse reaction. It is really important that our little people know what to expect and what is expected of them. Take the time before you leave home to explain to your child what’s going to happen – where are you going, who will be there, what will they see and do and importantly, what are your expectations regarding behaviour.

Be the behaviour you expect to see

Be sure to manage your own expectations. Children feed off our energy and emotions so be careful that you aren’t anxious or expectant of a meltdown or you might just create a self fulfilling prophecy.

Be child focussed

When having an outing with children, remember to be child focussed. If it is not designed as a child friendly event or environment, be sure to have activities and things to keep them occupied. Allow for the usual suspects of hunger, fatigue or boredom ahead of time.

If your child is shy or reluctant to engage in either physical or verbal interactions when out, be supportive. This is not the time to chastise your child for being rude. Yes, it is good (and necessary) to teach them appropriate social skills, but that needs to start in a controlled manner. Ahead of time, you should talk to your child about their fears. Be supportive, empathise and acknowledge their fear as it is real for them. Once they feel heard you can reality test their fears by playing the “what if…?” game. Take it is turns to ask “what if?” and then problem solve together how your child might respond to that situation. Give your child the coping skills they need and role play with them. Then you can test their threshold, starting small, setting them up for success and giving them the confidence to stretch themselves next time.

Be kind

Avoid obligatory hugs and kisses etc. If your child does not want to hug aunty Joan there might be a good reason, so don’t force them and be sure to defend them against any comments about “rudeness”. This is a child safety issue. Our children need to know that their bodies are theirs and no one should touch them if they do not consent.

If you know your child is anxious or has sensory issues that may become overloaded during an outing be sure to teach them relaxation & mindfulness skills that they can use if they feel themselves becoming overwhelmed. Fidget toys and sensory blankets etc can be highly beneficial for many children.

Remember, in the busyness of your outing to watch for the early warning signs that trouble is brewing  and be ready to intervene early and remove your child to a calm space. If a meltdown happens, your child has become overwhelmed by emotions and is ill-equipped with the coping skills to deal with them. Now is not the time to try and reason or direct your child as the brain is incapable of engaging in reasoning at that time. Remain calm. If it is safe to do so, you may want to ignore the behaviour until your child shows signs of self-soothing. If you cannot ignore, then calmly remove the child to somewhere safe. Hold them, if they are little enough not to hurt you. You might use diversion or distraction if you catch it early. Empathise, breathe and keep yourself calm. This too, shall pass.

When providing this information remember:

  • Be positive. Rather than “don’t be naughty” say “I know you will use your manners nicely / stay with mummy” etc.
  • Be direct. Use statements rather than questions if it is a clear directive. Avoid statements like “You’re not going to do xyz are you?”
  • Be age appropriate. You know your child’s level of understanding. Stay within it.
  • One thing at a time. Processing information can be difficult for little people.
  • Allow for questions and time to process.
  • Practice “what if…?” to give your child the skills they might need.

Happy parenting.

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Janine Mergler

Janine Mergler is a veteran Queensland teacher, graduating from QUT with a BEd majoring in Social Sciences. After many years in the classroom, Janine moved on to academia. She has proudly trained new generations of teachers in her role as a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education. She has also worked in the Queensland Government as an education specialist, developing education resources and delivering community awareness programs to help families conserve water. Currently she is the owner and editor of Families Magazine, a publication specifically targeted at parents who value a quality education for children.  Janine leads a team of professionals who write about family lifestyle, early childhood, schools and education information and family-friendly events.

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