Helping a Child in Distress

What should one do when a child is extremely distressed in public?

Note: Behaving ethically means taking action in the right way for the situation. It takes practice not only to see (perceive) the ethical demands of a situation but to act in the right way. We often face situations of behavior uncertainly, even though we see the need for action. I describe a case of my own.

I heard the toddler wail across the store. He kept up his protest as we passed him in a cart along the checkout lines. He sounded both angry and heartbroken. After our purchases, he was still upset, tears leaping from his eyes as he cried sitting next to his mother in a booth. She asked him if he wanted to try his pizza. Distressed, we walked on by, not knowing what to do. I now consider that an ethical failure. I became haunted by my failure to help.

Emotions are key adaptations that guide our life. But they must be trained well to work wisely as guides. Learning to trust that ‘funny feeling’ in your stomach can save you from a bad relationship or a bad situation.

Children under 6 need help with their emotions. Early experience is the training ground for emotions. Will the parent encourage joy, building that into their personality? Will the parent take the child’s emotions as cues for the child’s unique spirit and encourage that spirit to grow, guiding the child in respecting their own emotions? Or will the parent frustrate the child’s urges for growth routinely, building in resentment and anger? Will the parent ignore the child’s emotions (thinking that will help control them), teaching the child to ignore their own emotional cues, leaving them underdeveloped in emotional intelligence?

My expertise in neurobiology and the development of human morality make me sensitive to the needs of young children and the possible harm they are experiencing when they are highly distressed. Extensive distress does damage to developing brains, leaving long term marks on brain function, like a hyperreactive stress response (Lupien et al., 2006), which undermines sociomoral functioning (Narvaez, 2014). Because thousands of synapses are developing every minute in a young child, one never knows what distress is altering in normal development.

The parent and regular caregivers are like orchestra conductors. They wave up or wave down emotions depending on their treatment of the child: Sturm und drang (storm and stress) or calm and quiet? If adults don’t follow the child’s cues and interests but frustrate them deeply and routinely (even unintentionally) they can foster a personality oriented to storm and stress.

Children don’t have built-in emotional controls. They need adult help in learning to calm down an emotion. The younger the child, the more help is needed for self-regulation. This does not mean simply punishing them for acting inappropriately, “so that they learn to behave.” No, child development doesn’t work that way. That would be instead be the squelching of a child’s development—like stomping on a young plant growing in your garden.

The child in the store was signaling deep distress and the mother was ignoring it. Psychologists call this unresponsive. Responsive relationships in early life are correlated longitudinally with secure attachment, mental health and moral capacities like empathy, self control and conscience (e.g., Kochanska, 2002; Sroufe et al., 2008).

In this case it could be that something he got attached to in the store was taken away, explaining his anger. But his heartbrokenness may have come from his mother ignoring his distress entirely—perhaps she was feeling embarrassed and thought ignoring would calm things down more quickly. Or perhaps she took an iPhone away from him and feels like she has done the right thing. She was focused on something other than his need for help to be recognized and calmed down.

So what is an outsider to do? What is wrong with just walking by?

In our ancestral context, children grow up in a community of responsive relationships 24/7. For over 99% of our species’ history, mothers and their children have been supported by other community members. Children thrive within a ‘village’ of caring supporters. If a particular caregiver is preoccupied with something else, there is someone else around to whom the child can turn for comfort or play, or who will step in to alleviate distress. Most children in advanced economies are missing out on this web of constancy provided by familiar caregivers day and night.

From a species-normal perspective, this child was being harmed by the lack of community support (for child and for mother). This kind of support grows the sense of belonging and trust children need to build a good life, but also the parent’s sense of support for being responsive to the needs of the child.

So what should I have done?

Being a stranger, the young child would not turn to me, or anyone else, in the store. But the child could be comforted indirectly. A child in a heartbroken meltdown needs a witness.

This is what I think I should have done:

Walk up to the child and mother and say: I’m a psychologist. I’m concerned about this child’s wellbeing. Tell the child in a calm voice: It’s okay. You will be all right. Then, turn to the mother (but keep turning to the child with reassurance) and represent the child’s view: The child needs comforting. He is unable to calm down without your comfort. He feels abandoned emotionally. To alleviate that pain, he needs comforting—comforting conversation, comforting touch.

In my experience intervening in other situations with distressed children, the parent usually will take in the advice and act differently. For example, when I found a very young baby distressed in a grocery cart while her family was down the aisle, I spoke directly to the baby, telling him that his family loved him. The family came back and heard me and asked, “Isn’t okay to let babies cry?” I explained that no, it is not a good idea to distress a baby whose brain is scheduled to grow thousands of synapses a second. Stress shuts down that growth. They were glad to learn that babies are highly immature and need loving attention to grow well.

But if the parent doesn’t respond receptively, then you can reflect back to her what she says (e.g., “you’re feeling frustrated with your child” “you want me to leave you alone”) but repeat your concern for the child’s wellbeing. At the very least, the child will have had a witness.

What do you think should have been done? What would you have done?


Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Kochanska, G. (2002). Mutually responsive orientation between mothers and their young children: A context for the early development of conscience. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 191-195. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00198

Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.

McEwen, B. S., Nasca, C., & Gray, J. D. (2015). Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(1), 3-23.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.) (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development (Children, Youth, and Families, National Research Council and Institute of Medicine). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Sroufe, L.A., Egeland, B, Carlson, E.A., & Collins, W.A. (2008). The development of the person: The Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: Guilford.

Sunderland, M. (2006). The science of parenting. DK Press.

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