You’ve either seen this parent or been this parent in the middle of the grocery store, in front of God and all the shoppers at Walmart that unfortunate Wednesday afternoon. There is a child laying prone on the ground, marshmallow cereal, a candy bar, or a toy clutched in their arms like it is a lifeline. They are screaming either so unintelligibly you can’t understand a word they are saying; it’s something along the lines of, “You’re not my real mom! I don’t want to go with you! You’re mean! You never feed me! You hate me! I hate you!” etc. As you try to soothe them, you’re considering the consequences of running out of the store, groceries be damned, changing your name, and leaving the country. (or like…maybe that’s just a me thing.) Big feelings can be hard to navigate.
See. I’ve learned to not be embarrassed by my kids. I’d live in a constant state of humiliation if I was embarrassed every time they do something absurd or uncalled for. The problem is that to them I am the one being absurd and acting in an uncalled-for way. Let me explain.
My kids, at least, were starved for a long time before they came to us. So now, even when they have an abundance of food at their fingertips, they become frightened of being starved again. So when I say “no” to the bag of Takis (because I know I just purchased them in bulk), in my child’s mind, he feels like he might starve. It is literally a life-or-death situation to him. He thinks I’m denying him food, not delaying gratification. By the time he’s on the floor, my chances are more or less lost of getting him to be reasonable. That is, at least, unless I suddenly decide to acquiesce—which I have only done once because it seemed my choices were moving into the store permanently or making him rephrase the request politely so I could say yes.
So, I think we all know that the best offense is defense. So, the best thing to do is prepare. If you have to go into a store with your child and they are prone to hysterics, choose an incentive and remind them what their good behavior can earn throughout the experience.
Maybe positive reinforcement doesn’t work with your kiddo who can’t handle delayed gratification. I suggest not taking them to the store with you. I realize, of course, that can’t always be the situation. However, I find that going without my kids is the best for everyone if I have the opportunity. That being said, if I absolutely must take kids with me to the sensory overload factory that is the grocery store, I do the following first:
- Make sure they are hydrated.
- Feed them and bring along a snack.
- Set expectations before you get out of the vehicle.
- If they struggle with sensory overload, offer them ear protection and sunglasses.
- If they are able, let them help shop from your grocery list.
So, maybe the problem you’re having isn’t big feelings in the grocery store. Maybe it’s at home, or school, or in the car. Maybe it’s everywhere. Children who were adopted may have a lot of complex emotional issues at times and, just like anyone else, those emotions can pop out like a terrifying wolf creature in what is supposed to be a children’s movie but is actually nightmare fodder for the next two years. Or…something like that.
We keep stress relief toys on hand: fidgets, stress balls, stretchy rubber bands, poppers, etc. Sometimes, being bored can feel like the literal worst thing that has ever happened to them. Always be prepared to stave off boredom if you can. I also try to always have a notepad and pencils on hand for drawing.
Sometimes the big feelings are happy or excitement. Give them an outlet to be happy and excited. We call it getting the wiggles out—which is probably something they learned from a teacher or a kids cartoon. If my one daughter is bouncing off the walls excited about something, sometimes I ask her if she would like to bounce on the trampoline until she feels calm. Sometimes, she wants to be held and squeezed tight.
Sometimes the answer is to sit with them. Not every emotion can be addressed so directly. Sometimes, we just have to sit and be available while our kiddos struggle through big feelings. It helps my kids to know they have a place to talk about it. One of them likes to draw a picture of how she’s feeling. Another likes to run. We do what we can to make them feel safe and let them exist the way they need to for a while.
Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.