5 embarrassing toddler scenarios and how to handle them

Clinical psychologist and mother of twins Dr Colinda Linde explains how to save the day when your toddler’s public “oops” leaves you feeling mortified. By Lynne Gidish

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More often than not, your kids go with you when you do grocery shopping. When natural curiosity and excitement get the better of her, your tot may behave in a way you weren’t expecting, and staying calm and rational is the only solution.

The scenario: trolley trouble

It’s a busy pre-Christmas Saturday morning in your local supermarket, and you’re wondering why you decided to bring along your three-year-old. The aisles are clogged, the lines are long, and your little one has finally reached his sell-by date. “Mom, I want to go home. NOW!” The tears begin to flow and he tries to throw items out of your trolley just as you make it to the checkout queue. “Just a few minutes, we won’t be long,” you say, although you know it isn’t true – there are five people ahead of you with trolleys as laden as yours.

The advice: stay in the “now”

Getting stuck in the “if only”, or worrying about what “they” think is pointless. Fellow parents will be sympathetic, and those who aren’t may be judgmental, but rest assured that their day will soon come. There are three options available to you:

  • Distracting (unless it’s too far gone – an exhausted or hungry child is not going to be playable)
  • Leaving (choose your battles wisely)
  • Parking your trolley, excusing yourself and taking a time out for your child to calm down.

Whichever solution you choose, you need to show your child, and the audience, that you’re in control of the situation and handling it as best as you can.

The scenario: uncomfortable questions

“Why is that lady so fat? Did she eat someone?”, or “Why does that lady have those yucky lines all over her face?” A child’s innocent observation versus what’s socially acceptable to talk about in public, loudly, as only a four-year-old can, may be one of the most embarrassing moments for parents.

The advice: diffuse and discuss

While it’s a parent’s job to teach manners and respect, you don’t want to squash either natural curiosity or learning, as your child is expressing her developing verbal skills. If the person in question is oblivious to the remark, a good response could be to say, “People come in many shapes and sizes”, or “Those are a normal part of being older, like Granny and Grandpa”, adding that the two of you can discuss her questions further when you get home. If you need to do damage control, you could say something like, “Sorry, she’s at a stage where she’s aware of people and their appearances.”  Then quickly distract your child, especially if she is young or is inclined to return to the topic. When you get home, you can safely bring up the subject again and reiterate that everyone has a different appearance, so while it’s a good observational skill (do compliment her on this), it’s also kinder to notice and then talk softly to mom or dad, or ask later, so the other person’s feelings aren’t hurt.

ALSO SEE: Common questions kids ask and how to answer them

The scenario: shopping-centre meltdown

The weather isn’t great, so you and your family head to the nearest shopping centre where your two-year-old decides to throw a full-scale tantrum. She’s lying on the floor, kicking and screaming. You’re trying to stay calm and distract her, but the tantrum becomes more severe. You’re getting looks – of sympathy from fellow parents, smugness from those whose children are currently behaving themselves, and disapproval from those who don’t have kids.

The advice: change the location

Your first option is to leave the shopping centre, even if you go to the car. Your child will learn that she’ll get a time out, no matter where she may be. Alternatively, head for the nearest baby goods aisle or store for a safe place to escape to while he’s in tantrum mode. Both will be frequented by other parents, which means far less pressure and your child can have time out in the store. Try to stay calm in your movements and speech, even if you’re boiling inside.

ALSO SEE: Your survival guide to shopping with a toddler

The scenario: looking a gift horse in the mouth

“I don’t want it!”, or “It’s not the one I wanted!” are phrases commonly uttered by preschoolers as they tend to change their minds often or become fixated on specific things they see on TV. While it’s not too hard to tune out this type of whining when you’re home alone, when it happens on Christmas morning or a birthday and it refers to a gift lovingly bought by a grandparent who’s excitedly looking on, it can be mortifying.

The advice: focus on the positives

Your best bet is to quickly point out a facet of the gift that you know your child will like. The Hello Kitty or Nemo soft toy may not be the animated version come to life, but is cuddly and has lovely big eyes, and, best of all, can go everywhere with her. Don’t focus on apologising for the comment or trying to get her to say thank you. Later, you can mention to the giver that your child is still at the fantasy age (which continues until the age of six), so she can’t understand why the toy is not exactly what she saw on TV.

The scenario: the great reveal

You have a house full of guests for a festive braai and your child comes running onto the patio waving your barely-there lace underwear or, even worse, your oldest pair of mommy panties with the stretched and shredded elastic.

The advice: Keep it together

After the initial shock and horror, you need to stay calm – even if you’re faking it. The second your child realises she has leverage, her mind will start ticking over as she tries to gauge what she can get from you – even if it’s just a reaction and a captive audience. Your best move is to remain completely unruffled, take your child by the hand and remove her and the offending item simultaneously. At a later stage, you can talk to her about personal space and explain what is appropriate to share and what isn’t. Link it to her special things, and how she’d feel if you brought out one of her favourite toys to share with the other kids. Young children can’t fully grasp the impact of why you don’t want certain personal things shared, so make it relevant to them.

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