Walking into a memorial service recently, I noticed an angry father questioning his distraught five-year-old. "Why did you hit me?" he demanded again and again. Meanwhile, his daughter said nothing, just hung her head and cried. She was clearly as upset as he was, and equally in the dark about what had just happened.

Most of us have witnessed or participated in scenes like this. They often occur when small children are parachuted into intense, unaccustomed places or events. Funerals, weddings, parties, even shopping malls and airport security lines can overwhelm young kids by overloading their sensory and emotional circuits. Lacking experience in self-regulation and with limited cognitive and verbal skills to draw on, children tend to respond impulsively, throwing a tantrum or lashing out at those nearest and dearest. We parents are usually dealing with strong emotions ourselves - often magnified by the stress of social embarrassment - and that can cause us to speak and act impulsively, too.

The ability to cope with stressful social situations is an important life skill that takes time to develop. As a rule, it is best to avoid thrusting children into circumstances for which they are not yet developmentally equipped. On a few occasions, however, we may feel obligated to expose our children to environments or events that place overwhelming demands on their still immature sensory systems and emotional resilience. When that happens, empathy and preparation can save the day.

Rehearse in advance

Intense situations will feel less stressful if your child knows ahead of time what to expect. Use dolls to act out the sequence of events, or make an illustrated chart. Even if she is too young to tell time, your child is capable of remembering the four or five main activities that will occur. If she becomes agitated on the day, calm her mind by referring to the sequence of events. ("That was the end of the second part. Do you remember what comes next?")

Give her tools she can use by practicing social skills, such as shaking hands, using a "Three Bear" voice (not too loud, not too soft, just-right) and making eye contact (let her in on the secret that gazing at noses works just as well). Using a favorite stuffed animal, ask her the kinds of questions she is likely to hear (such as "What's your name? How old are you?") so that she can learn to respond politely and with confidence.

Play-acting with puppets and dolls can also be an effective way of anticipating and explaining confusing scenes your child might witness, such as tears at a wedding, laughter at a funeral or people speaking in unusually loud or hushed tones.

Create an escape hatch

If you are involved in organizing the event, set up a separate kids' room with crafts, games and a babysitter, or designate an out-of-the-way area where children can draw or read while cooling down. Allowing children to dip in and out of the social scene might seem like coddling, but it is actually in line with their developmental capacity and will help them learn to recognize and soothe spiking emotions and overstimulated senses.

If you've had no time to prearrange an escape hatch, you can always use the door. Changing the scene changes the mood, so take breaks with your child at regular intervals before her emotions hop on a runaway train. Step outside to watch the squirrels, look for animal shapes in the clouds or throw snowballs at trees. Tag team with a friend or partner so that neither of you has to miss too much of the event.

Many parents find it effective to establish a subtle, private signal (such as a squeezed elbow or a code word) that a child can use to tell you when she needs a break from the action. Explain that everyone feels overwhelmed sometimes, and when that happens hitting the re-set button is always better than hitting a person.

Empathize without over-identifying

Special events raise the stakes for making a good impression, which is fine unless our egos get wrapped up in the appearance, behavior or accomplishments of our children. We overstep appropriate boundaries and invite power struggles when we view their "performances" as reflecting on us. Put on imaginary blinders and stay focused on doing what is right in the long-run for your child, rather than what will win the short-term approval of other adults.

Assessing social situations from your child's pint-size perspective will open your eyes to a range of frustrations and challenges you would not have noticed otherwise. Get down on her level and notice the towering bodies, strange smells, annoying music, cacophonous voices and startling bursts of laughter. Once you have identified the biggest problems, you will be in a position to suggest ways of softening their effect.

Trouble-shooting a meltdown

If, in spite of everything, you find yourself with an overwhelmed child who suddenly loses control and lashes out, cool yourself down by remembering that this is what it looks like when a child is learning to manage her emotions. Calmly guide her to a private place where she can vent strong feelings without bothering others. If you decide to stay at the event, be sure to provide guidelines and tools that will help. Speak kindly and firmly: "Sometimes at parties, feelings get too big and we need to take a break. Instead of hitting, you can hold up three fingers and I'll know it's time for us to cool down together." Ask her to repeat back what she heard so you are sure she understands.

Empathy and coping tools are what small children need most when they are overwhelmed by big emotions. With patience and practice, they will learn to navigate the complexities of social situations with confidence and ease.


Robyn Des Roches is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting Preschoolers" classes. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2½ to 18. PEPparent.org