The Humble Pie of Parenting: Tantrums in Public Places

Graphic by Jeannie Ewing.

Graphic by Jeannie Ewing.

I have officially become one of those parents. You know the type: exasperated, seemingly not in control of their children, uncertain as to how to prioritize their parenting skills. When I venture into the public arena with my toddler and preschooler, I know I am always taking a major risk. It is a risk that requires me to take a deep breath and just dive in to whatever may ensue.

I say this, because both of my daughters have special needs. Sarah obviously looks different, so on average, people tend to give her – and me – a break when she throws a public screamfest.

But on the exterior, Felicity appears to be a typical preschooler, and she is also very verbally articulate for her age. So the assumption from a stranger, acquaintance or even close friend is that her behavior must be a result of one of three things: her age, her temperament, or poor parenting on (primarily) my part.

I see it in people’s eyes when her anxieties escalate. Usually this is when the deep breath comes in handy for me, because my thoughts wander into the realm of what if: what if that person thinks I’m a bad parent? What if Felicity has a full-blown meltdown in the middle of the store? What if I am clueless as to how to respond to her?

The emotive response within almost always corresponds with the cognitive anxieties above. Like most experiences in my life, the emotions associated with the events are multifaceted. Initially, I feel angry that this. is. happening. again. But I’m also frustrated, because – in my perception – I have tried absolutely everything I can think of to help Felicity calm down. Then the guilt sets in when I see the furtive glances from people surrounding me or hear them clear their throats. This is almost always accompanied by embarrassment and shame. Finally, my heart is deeply wounded for Felicity, because she is so clearly suffering for reasons unbeknownst to me.

Felicity was diagnosed with a fairly common, neurological condition called Sensory Processing Disorder when she was only eighteen months old. We knew something was awry with her development when she wasn’t even close to crawling, let alone walking, several months after her first birthday. A physical therapist rigorously worked with increasing her strength and aiming for the goal of crawling and walking.

It worked. But something else cropped up unexpectedly: the suggestion that there might be something else. After an evaluation by a developmental therapist, occupational therapist, and physical therapist, Felicity was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. Her main senses that were affected were her tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses.

In essence, she doesn’t like the way things feel on her skin. Most of us have bodies that are able to acquire sensory information, such as different textures (grass, gravel, sand, water) and that will translate these sensory phenomena into our neurological system. Our brains gather, collect and conform this sensory information into our growing knowledge of the world around us. Eventually our senses assist us in all aspects of learning who we are in a spatial sense (of where our bodies are located).

Occupational therapists call this “organizing” sensory information. The bottom line is that Felicity’s body and brain are not organizing this information about ordinary encounters in daily living. You and I don’t think much about putting on our socks and shoes or how we will balance ourselves on rocky ground. We don’t worry about it when our eyes get a little water in them from the shower or our hands are sticky.

But Felicity does. And it causes great distress in her life and in our household.

No parent wants to hear that something, anything, is “wrong” with their child. It’s that dreaded prediction we all cringe when even remotely toying with the thought in our consciousness. We simply want typical children.

But that is not the story of my life as a mom.

I was reflecting the other day about our latest public drama, and I had to chuckle to myself. You see, I used to be one of those people who saw a child screaming uncontrollably and then scoffed to myself, Why can’t that mother get her child under control? Must be a spoiled brat. Sadly, I would simply move on in my day without another consideration as to my presumptuous and cruel judgment.

God has a way of humbling us. Always. Now, when Felicity screams and her anxieties intensify in a public place, I understand both the person issuing judgment against me with their glares and utterances, and I also sympathize with the parents who – two aisles down from us at the grocery store – are dealing with a similar situation. When I pass them by, I usually smile at the child and give a knowing nod to the mom.

And then I offer a silent prayer for that mother and for moms everywhere who simply do not know if they are getting this parenting thing all wrong. When I see the many children who fuss and scream and have an all-out meltdown, I now wonder, Maybe she is overtired. Perhaps she’s testing boundaries. Maybe it’s because she is learning about independence. Maybe there is an undiagnosed – or diagnosed – problem of allergies, sensory concerns, autism, or a host of other causes. I no longer jump to the conclusion that poor self-regulation or emotional immaturity in children is directly related to inadequate parenting.

The truth is parenting is hard. It’s the most difficult job I’ve ever held in my entire life. It’s one I often wish I could assign to someone else, because I am just not tailored for what it entails. At the end of the string of consequences for bad behavior, rewards for good behavior, counseling sessions, therapy appointments, and progress charts, there is prayer.

We begin and end our day with prayer. In the midst of the days when all I get are five minute intervals of silence in between ninety minute tantrums, Felicity may approach me in a more lucid moment and tell me with certainty, “Mommy, God made me. And He loves me all the time.”

That’s all I really need to know, despite the criticisms and unsolicited advice from others. In spite of it all, my children know they are loved. Therefore, I must abandon my own selfishness and pride in keeping up appearances and just live the life we have been dealt – with dignity, with joy, with love, and with a sense of abandonment to God’s grace and a little dose of humility.

Copyright 2015 Jeannie Ewing

Image by Jeannie Ewing via Canva, all rights reserved


About Author

Jeannie Ewing believes the world ignores and rejects the value of the Cross. She writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief. As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters and is the author of From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore , and Waiting with Purpose. Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines. She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website


  1. Sorry, but I had to chuckle a bit, but only because I know exactly what you’re going through.

    We have 2 boys with special needs, and the oldest one can have a total meltdown in public places. Oy vey! My wife handles it MUCH better than I do.

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