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The Do's and Don'ts of 'Helping' a Struggling Mom

Shortly after turning 2, my daughter went through an epic fit-throwing stage. It happened mostly at home, but there were a handful of occasions when she began raging in public. As much as it embarrassed me, I learned quickly that ignoring the fit and going about my business as though it wasn't happening at all was the best way to calm her down.

Acknowledging that fit or making efforts to calm her myself usually resulted in me getting hit in the face, both of us reaching the brink of frustration and the tantrum raging on for as long as 45 minutes. Ignoring it usually led to her tears dissipating within five.

Sometimes, as a parent, you're just doing what you have to do to survive the moment.

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So imagine my irritation a few weeks ago when my daughter began throwing a fit in public, hurling herself to the floor as I kept walking a few paces away, and a woman who was just trying to help stepped in and addressed her directly—only making the fit that much worse.

I wasn't upset or bothered that she wanted to help, that part was nice. The issue was that, upon clearly seeing I was employing the "ignore it" method to end this fit, she instead walked right up to my daughter and reached out to touch her, thinking comfort might be what she needed.

And then she reacted in shock and dismay when my daughter screamed at her instead of immediately calming down.

If you want to be the village, go about it the right way.

Look, I don't always know that I'm doing this whole parenting thing right, and I am all about the "it takes a village" mentality. There are certainly times when I question myself and am open to the advice of others. But there is a way to offer that helping hand. So here are the do's and don'ts of stepping in, should you feel so compelled to act as that village we all really and truly do need.

Do approach the parent and ask if there is something you can do. When your kid is throwing a fit in public, you are painfully aware of all the other people around who are witnessing the demise. Someone kindly stepping in and offering to help, even if that help isn't necessarily needed, is a good thing. I promise.

Don't approach the child. No matter what you may have witnessed, you have no idea what the full story is. And you also don't possess the knowledge this parent has of their child. You may consider yourself a baby whisperer, capable of soothing any tantruming toddler, but you don't know this toddler. Trust the parent to know what works, and don't side step them by approaching the child first.

Do offer a kind and supportive smile. You have no idea how much a parent may need a show of compassion in this moment. They are keenly aware of all the eyes on them, and that one genuine show of support can make all the difference.

Don't stand and stare. You are certainly not obligated to help, but don't be a gawking bystander to a moment that is already difficult and embarrassing enough. If you don't have anything constructive to add, continue about your normal routine. Put your groceries in your cart or keep walking toward your car. Kids throw fits. It happens. And this one moment in time isn't going to ruin your day. So go on your way. This isn't a sideshow for you to get your daily entertainment (or self-aggrandizing "tsk-tsk") from.

Do provide words of encouragement. Even more than a kind smile, a simple, "We've all been there, you've got this," can be so huge. Because parenting can sometimes be a really isolating thing, and it is so easy to convince yourself that you are mucking it all up. Someone else reminding you that all parents struggle sometimes, and that most toddlers tantrum, can help a struggling mom to not feel so alone—and it can give her that extra boost she needs to get through this particular moment.

Don't continue pushing if the parent tells you they are fine. Yes, offer the help. But know that sometimes, it won't be accepted. Be willing to back off and walk away if Mom or Dad doesn't seem receptive to your efforts. It isn't necessarily about you, so don't take it personally. Some parents just need to deal with these things in their own way.

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If you want to be the village, go about it the right way. As a mom of a toddler in the midst of her terrible twos, I can tell you a show of support and offer of help really would mean the world to me in those moments when my child is seemingly inconsolable. But simply stepping right in or undermining what I am trying to accomplish, whether you agree with my methods or not? That doesn't help—it just makes an already bad situation even worse.

Photograph by Leah Campbell

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