Q: Having a beach sit . . . and really worried (and wicked annoyed) by all the parents yelling at their kids. It is a “do as I say right this minute just because” situation with parents repeating the child’s name over and over and making threats (“then we will have to go”) but not following through. Parents are yelling at children to stop whining/crying/demanding. Doesn’t seem to be working! We need a positive Judith article about beach manners and effective dynamics. 

Do you have any advice for us? We all need to be able to find calm. Everyone is exhausted and weary. And it is showing up with moms on the beach. I know excited children will always yell, but it is so grating to hear tired moms yelling at their children from the distance of their towels, especially when it is having little effect. And to hear moms at the ends of their ropes threatening repeatedly, “If you don’t stop, we will have to leave.” But they really, really don’t want to, and they cave in. What works? 

A: Unfortunately, parents need to take responsibility for their own “triggers,” those knee-jerk reactions when their parental authority is questioned, or more so, their demands fall on deaf ears! Parents can be on automatic pilot;  in other words, their expectations of their children’s behavior is usually based on the expectations their parents had for them. Most reactions are unconscious, coming up too quickly to practice a more thoughtful, connective response. Children typically respond to fair, logical, and respectful treatment. Connection is key; when we hear and validate their emotions — yes, even the negative ones — they feel understood. What you’ve described is instead disrespectful treatment, which doesn’t work, given there’s no connection to the emotional root of the behavior. Children want to get it right, they want to be seen and heard, as well as understood, just as the rest of us do. When parents want to gain their child’s cooperation, it helps to share their child’s lens of the circumstances. For example: a child who wants to go in swimming is crying/whining, because Mom promised to swim with him. However, now she’s too distracted, talking with her friends. He feels dismissed, disappointed, angry, abandoned. Or: Mom expects her 4-year-old to share her beach toys, but doesn’t see some of the older children grabbing and throwing them to taunt her, thus her whining/crying is a plea for support/intervention. There are endless examples, however I think you get the point. 

Yes indeed, everyone is weary of the isolation, What’s most helpful between parents and children — before going to the beach — is to discuss everyone’s expectations, good “manners” and agree how to balance everyone’s needs. Connection involves hearing, understanding, and validating your child’s point of view. Any emotions are accepted with “I understand,” which doesn’t mean you have to agree. Parents are more likely to engage their children’s cooperation by speaking to the emotional root of the behavior, thus avoiding defiance. Meeting our children within their present experience is important, without setting unrealistic or unfair expectations — “Do as I say or we are leaving now!” — which only meets with feelings of “I’m not understood. This isn’t fair. Nothing I do is ever good enough, I feel hopeless.” 

First, yelling at the children probably resulted from the parents’ frustration, expecting to socialize with their friends, with their children playing and leaving them alone. That expectation might make sense, however this depends on the developmental and temperamental characteristics of each child. It sounds as though those expectations were unrealistic, with no connection to what was causing the children’s acting out (i.e., refusal to stop whining, demanding, “mis-behaving”). Clearly, the children were behaving negatively due to their own frustration, exhaustion, etc.; when you don’t feel seen, heard, or understood, this usually results in acting out. When parents accept their children unconditionally, that doesn’t mean they’re accepting the behavior. It does mean the parent is accepting her child and how she’s presently feeling, unable to do anything else. Behavior gives us a barometer reading, letting parents know to step back, take a deep breath, to look beyond the behavior. If we punish the behavior we don’t like (as you witnessed at the beach), we never uncover what’s beyond the behavior, understanding the child is having a problem. 

COVID has certainly increased the stress parents, and children, are experiencing with spending so much time together. Sadly, it doesn’t change children still wanting their parents’ approval while wanting to do their best. When children are “misbehaving,” something is blocking them, preventing them from being successful. By shaming, yelling, disapproving, threatening children, rather than connecting and understanding, parents are showing they don’t trust their child’s inherent goodness. It’s so important that, as parents, we realize the importance of empathy in understanding how our communication impacts our children. Being honest, non-accusatory, and validating helps foster healthy self-esteem, self-discipline, and resilience in our children. 

A “do-over” for the beach behavior/dynamics, when a child feels misunderstood and humiliated by how his parent speaks to him: Parent says something like: “You must feel really upset by how I just spoke to you. Wouldn’t it be cool if no one ever told you what to do, and everyone always listened to you!” What you witnessed at the beach is how stressed parents often treat children in a way that doesn’t make sense, ending up with the same frustrating outcome. If we do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, that’s the definition of insanity.