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Sunday, January 05, 2014

The "Look" You Get When You Are Being Judged as a Parent

I wonder if having your child misbehave and embarrass you in public is a universal experience for parents.  Are there actually people who have no idea what it is like to have your child make a scene and attract attention in negative ways?  If you are such a parent whose child never made you look or feel inadequate throughout his childhood, I will be happy for you and somewhat mystified by your existence.  Until I meet or hear from one of you, though, such a parent will remain a legend or mythical creature to me.  I can even imagine a book titled, “The Parent Who Never Erred” or perhaps “Consistently Compliant Children:  Fact or Fiction?”  I think people would buy the book either to learn everything they could from such success or to disprove and discredit a story that seems too incredible to believe.

            Overall I think I had great kids.  They generally wanted to please and were relatively compliant.  With that said and my motherly bias evident, there were times when my children exposed me to “The Look” as a direct result of their behavior.  And I’m not talking about the look that a parent gives to a misbehaving child.  I’m talking about “The Look” that a parent gets from an overtly critical onlooker.  Allow me to explain “The Look” in case some of you have never experienced it personally, either on the giving or receiving end.  It is not a pleasant thing to have directed your way, because “The Look” is given when people disapprove of your children or the way you are handling them.  Sometimes it seems to communicate revulsion with you and your child, passing judgment and finding you guilty with one sweeping glance.  Givers of “The Look” can communicate entire monologues just using the powers of eye gaze and facial expressions.  “The Look” asks you why you can’t control your child.  “The Look” may convey disgust at your perceived inadequacies or your child’s atrocious behavior.  Givers of “The Look” may want to know what is wrong with your child that he would behave in such unacceptable ways.  

            Two of my three children were diagnosed with AD/HD and Sensory Processing Disorder and inadvertently provided me with plenty of opportunities to receive “The Look”.   Before I was a parent, I didn’t even know such a look existed.  To find myself on the receiving end was highly uncomfortable and I was already overwhelmed and insecure about my ability to parent in such a way that my children’s special needs were met.  I was still learning about their challenges and although I worked very hard to teach my children good manners and appropriate behaviors in various settings sooner or later one of them would do something that resulted in “The Look”. 
            It is an especially devastating feeling to be judged and found wanting when it involves your children.  I invested my life in raising my children and yet complete strangers could zap me with a look and I’d feel crushed and rejected.  It was even harder to respond when “The Look” came from family and people who knew us, because it was often accompanied by unsolicited advice.  When an incident occurs in a public place, the odds are that you will get “The Look” from multiple people at once.  Have you experienced this?  If not, can you imagine how discouraging it would be?

            I know people who have children with autism spectrum disorders.  They have shared with me some of their frustrations and experiences when they got “The Look”.  One mom I know was in the grocery store when her son had an extreme meltdown and was engaged in a full-out tantrum.  This mom understood that when her son was that upset he had little self control and often flailed about in such a way that he could harm himself, others, or property.  As matter-of-factly as she could, this mom restrained her son using techniques that helped him calm down and kept him from hurting himself.  While she was endeavoring to help her son, she had store customers and employees giving her the look and making hurtful remarks loudly enough for her and all who were in close proximity to hear.  This mom knew that people thought her son was just a brat and she was an ineffective parent.  Her son’s autism didn’t show in his physical appearance, and she was faced with the decision of whether to explain that her son was autistic or try to ignore the people surrounding them. What would you do?
            One woman I know was at a store when her daughter with autism became loud and agitated.  This mom knew her daughter was reacting because she was over stimulated by her surroundings. She knew how to deal with her, but there wasn’t an immediate fix to help her daughter wind down from her distraught condition.  The mom didn’t like it, but she was used to getting “The Look”.  This was not unusual behavior for her daughter and during this particular episode she overheard a spectator say that perhaps Child Protective Services should be called since the child was obviously out of control and the mother was clearly incompetent to subdue her into compliance.  After that, she began to carry little cards that said “My child is not just misbehaving.  She has autism” and proceeded to explain some of the challenges faced by many individuals on the autism spectrum.   Handing someone the card was easier than trying to verbally explain all the nuances of autism in the midst of a crisis when her daughter needed her full attention.
            Another friend of mine adopted a child with special needs.  He had some neurological damage due to prenatal drug exposure and he was hyperactive and impulsive.  He did not seem to learn from experience and consequences had little effect on his behavior.  This little boy had no fear and needed constant supervision to keep him out of harm’s way.  In order to keep him safe when they were away from home, his mother quickly realized that a wrist strap would prevent him from darting into the street and would keep him in close proximity to her.  She was horrified and bewildered when people would give her “The Look” and make critical remarks about “people who keep their kids on a leash”.  This loving mother was only trying to keep her son safe yet people made assumptions and jumped to conclusions without truly understanding the situation.
            As far as I can tell “The Look” exists in every community, but it does not seem to help anyone.  Can making a person feel inadequate or condemned ever encourage them to keep trying in spite of the challenges they face?  I hope that this article has encouraged some of you if you have been the recipient of “The Look”.  You are not alone.  For the rest, I hope that you will be aware that your kind words and supportive looks can be as powerful and impactful as “The Look.”

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