While traveling with my young kids over the past couple of years, my husband and I have had two kind of experiences at the end of a plane ride. One in which strangers stop to tell us that our kids did “so good,” and another in which no one can make eye contact with us as they exit the plane.

Our first plane trip with my older son was one of the latter trips. He was seven months old and started crawling a month before the trip, so it was like trying to carry a monkey on your lap for more than three hours. He was also a cat napper. Most days, until he was nine months, he napped for 30 minutes at a time. That’s it.

Still, he slept in the car, so I was optimistic about that first flight because it would involve motion and a giant white noise machine. As is so often the case, we didn’t have such luck. The plane pulled away from the gate and then stopped. A flight attendant got over the loudspeaker and said, “Unfortunately we are having mechanical difficulties. Everyone needs to remain in their seats with their seatbelts on.” Then my son started screaming.

We tried pacifiers and he spit them out. We tried toys but his eyes were squinted shut. We did the loud shhhhhhhhhh in the ear thing. He kept shrieking. I nervously glanced at the older man next to us who was looking out the window pretending that there wasn’t a baby bomb going off next to him. There was very little we could do, and I can imagine what some of the people around us were thinking.

Now, a few years and several public meltdowns later, I’ve had some time to reflect on how strangers around me would ideally react in such situations. As a mother of a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, I have witnessed meltdowns of the understandable variety (overtired, overhungry) and the inexplicable variety (can’t eat the grass, can’t lie down in the street).

I feel self-conscious when such incidents happen in public, but I feel even more self-conscious around other parents. Because you have to react, and surely there are parents nearby whose reaction would be different. In short: you feed judged.

Direct criticism is the worst kind of comment in such situations, as parents are already aware that they have a problem and having someone else call their attention to it doesn’t really help. Luckily, this sort of direct criticism has been rare in my experience.

More often, strangers will ask: “What’s wrong?” I think these people are trying to help, but there is often nothing they can do to fix the problem. My toddler may be crying because the horn in the plastic car he is riding in is broken. As babies, it could be anything. Gas? Cold coming on? Disdain for the fluorescent lighting in the store? I never got the mom decoder ring that tells you.

I’ve come to realize there is only one thing I want to hear from other parents when my kid is in the midst of a public meltdown: commiseration. If my toddler crumbles into a crying heap at the park because a drop of applesauce fell on his shirt, then tell me about the five breakdowns your toddler had before 9 a.m. today, or the time she cried for 20 minutes because she didn’t get to leave the house without pants.

Hearing from parents who are still in the trenches is helpful, but hearing from parents who are still scarred by things their kids did 20 years ago is welcome. Did you raise twins in a studio apartment in Manhattan? Tell me about that. Did you have a colicky baby who screamed no matter what you did? Then maybe Starbucks is the place to share that story with a stranger.

Yes, this a bit of schadenfreude on my part and I know some people are just trying to help, but the time to offer advice is probably not when a kid is in the midst of a public meltdown.

On that first plane trip my son screamed for about 20 minutes before the plane returned to the gate and we were allowed to get up. My husband bounced my son to sleep in his arms. As we got off the plane a family with three stylish older kids – one sporting a fedora, another in a tailored blazer – wheeled their luggage cheerfully off the plane. As the mom walked past us she said, “We’ve all been there.”

It was a simple line of comfort from a stranger, and one that I was happy to hear. Especially because a couple hours later we boarded a different plane with all of the same people who had witnessed our first meltdown. When we got on, no one really made eye contact.

Julie Vick is a writer and English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. You can find her on Twitter @vickjulie.

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