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Thursday, December 15, 2011

In Vivo Exposure, In Vivo Learning (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

     As parents, we try to anticipate problems that may occur in public with our kids so that we can problem solve appropriately.  By problem solve, I do mean avoid uncomfortable, stress-inducing situations. For instance, going to the grocery store with a child can be challenging.  Kids may want all of the junk food they see, whine about how long it is taking to buy things, throw tantrums so they can get what they want, etc. To problem solve this, parents may leave the kids at home, some may go around the perimeter of the store so as to avoid the aisles with sugary cereals, give in to their tantrums incorrectly thinking this will work, etc.  Well, last week when my family and I went holiday shopping at the mall, I totally did not anticipate what unfolded and boy was I in for a surprise!

     It was the four of us: my husband, six year old son, two year old daughter, and me at a department store.  The plan was for me to go clothes shopping while my husband took the kids around the store.  Just as I was about to enter the ladies fitting room, my family spotted me.  Now the plan changed slightly. The three of them were to wait outside the fitting room while I tried on my outfits at lightning speed.  I should have known better at that moment.  As soon as I entered the stall, my kids wandered into the fitting room looking for me.  My very sweet, innocent daughter looked under one of the stalls while calling mommy.   Immediately a very loud and angry voice yelled “GET OUT!” twice to her. Instantly, I internally experienced very uncomfortable feelings that might have included some expletives. Having enough composure and dignity, I first apologized to the angry woman for my two year old daughter’s inappropriate, albeit innocent behavior.  No response from the angry lady. 

     Now, I must attend to my son’s near traumatic reaction. My husband was comforting him to no avail. Interestingly, it did not really phase my daughter. I would have thought she would have reacted more frantically given that she wears hearing aids that would amplify the yelling. My son was very keen on making this very point later on. But for now, he is crying “I don’t want to go to jail!” For awhile, I did not understand the connection between what had just happened and going to jail. Now, I get it. In a six year old mind, if you do something bad, you go to jail.  For few days, I was scratching my heads over this.  I digress. Anyhow, while walking towards my family I’m trying to figure how to best handle this melodrama.  I sense this is a crucial teachable moment. At first, I thought I’ll just explain to my son by saying that some people get crazy during the holidays. Then, I thought that would only teach him that you do not have to take responsibility for your actions and you are off the hook by blaming it on something or someone else. This is completely the opposite of what I hold true so scratched that off immediately. Instead, I put on my mother and therapist hats on at the same time.

     I first hugged him and said it will be ok.  Then, I explained to him that some people get angry easily and that we cannot control how other people feel or behave.  We can only control our own and being upset over this is not worth it. I said this loudly enough so that the woman could hear me. I got this strange feeling that people were watching me. Sure enough, a woman in her sixties who looked like she could be a school principal smiles to me and walks over to us.  She whispers to me: “She was just being mean. What did she teach anyways?” I just smiled back and shrugged my shoulders as if to say “I agree, but you shouldn’t play with fire.”

     In retrospect, I probably would have handled it a tad bit differently. I would have validated my son’s feelings little bit more by saying something like: “I know honey, it really feels horrible when someone yells at you.”  In therapy, there is a technique called in vivo exposure where you have your patient face their fears to treat their specific anxiety (elevator, heights, etc.).  For us, this was a different kind of in vivo exposure, but nonetheless a rich learning experience.


  1. Wow! Shame on that woman for yelling at an innocent 2 year-old for acting like....well, a two year-old! I think you handled the situation remarkably well considering you just witnessed a complete stranger yelling at your child for no good reason (yes, there was no good reason for it!). You modeled an appropriate response by remaining calm and in control of your own emotions despite the fact that you were likely filled with a mix of anger, embarrassment, and maybe even some fear of your own. You comforted your son and validated his feelings while also explaining that he is not responsible for other people's "bad" behavior. People have a choice in how they behave and react to situations and it is not always appropriate. Personally, I would not have been as civil and appropriate as you were and the "mama-bear" in me would have taken over(which I am sure I would have regretted later). Thanks for sharing this experience. Now, I can be prepared and tame my "mama-bear" inclination if and when I encounter a similar situation!

  2. Anonymous: Thank you for your very perceptive comment. It's true that there was a mix of feelings, particularly shock and some anger. As parents, we are often put to the test of how we handle everyday life situations in front of our children. Also as parents, we often forget how much our little ones are soaking in everything we say and do until one day they bring it up. When a parent says "Do do that..." and a child replies "But you do that...". I am sure this will resonate with parents across all walks of life. Appropriate modeling is crucial in parenting, but can be difficult to consistently exemplify. Thank you again for your wonderful feedback!