Neuro-typical and non-neuro-typical kids get frustrated. When children are very small, we hold our child and comfort them. Almost as if they are back in the safety of the womb, we snuggle their entire being and rock them while using a soothing voice to calm their hyperactive, seemingly crazed response to whatever escalated them in “their world”. It can last for ages and is made way worse when others are present. These are agonizing parental moments!
When children are a little larger, they throw stuff, yell louder and storm around. As the child matures, their muscles enlarge so they can actually inflict damage on others, on furniture, walls, and even scare neighbors overhearing the resounding vocalizations. Their vocal cords have matured, too, and they are able to use them. Boy howdy!
When you think it’s just you and your out-of-control child in the room, you’re wrong. Something else is in the room and it’s important to realize. The “other” that you must acknowledge is your relationship between yourself and your hidden beliefs regarding poor manners and poor behavior.
When I visited my parents, tossing a toy back and forth with Dad and my youngest was fun, but doing so while Dad watched sports on TV was not allowed. No one, not even Dad himself, knew this “rule”. It presented as quite an obstacle for us all when Dad lost his temper at my son. It wasn’t just Dad and my son in the room, Dad’s belief system on behavior got right in there, too.
Consider the possibility that you were raised with the belief that children should show respect to elders. Maybe you were raised with the belief that children should never throw things unless it’s within the first hour of a visit and there are no sports on TV (like my sweet Dad). Maybe you were raised feeling certain that children should not yell in public or disagree with adults. All of these unexamined beliefs will cripple your ability to purely interact with just your child until you become more aware.
When it’s just you and your child, when there is not an “audience”, you must get those hidden belief systems of yours out of the way. Or at least fess up to them. “Mommy was raised to believe kids don’t yell in the supermarket. When you yelled I was surprised and, as if I was a child, I yelled right back at you (or squeezed you hand too tight). Sorry about that.
With the non-neuro-typical child, such as a child on the autism spectrum (ASD) or sensory processing disorder (SPD), you need to recognize, examine and let go of beliefs you have about children’s behavior in general. Those beliefs about respect, manners, correct management of toys such as not throwing them and a child’s volume of vocalizations, get in your way when you are dealing with a true full-on, neurologically initiated meltdown.
When you are not alone, in public, and have an “audience”, be aware that you have the added distraction of feeling judgement. The “other” in the room this time is the perception of judgement on yourself, your child, and the whole circumstance. When it comes to the presence of others, keep in mind that you are not interested in a life-long relationship with them. You are only interested in a life-long relationship with your child. Stay focused and believe in yourself. Most likely, people watching are not judging you, they’re learning from you.
Children with ASD and SPD can have challenges with major melt downs on a regular basis. Also, many neuro-typical children will have similar looking melt downs. However, some children who are living in a very stressful life situation, as well as children with ASD and/or SPD, have very little control over their world. Un-welcome environmental stimulation seems to come at them. They are not able to select the salient details of sounds, sights and smells the same way as their neuro-typical individual. There is a disconnect between their brain and body that is not their fault. It’s neurophysiologic and not behavioral.
Picture back in the days that perfume advertisers would place lovely ladies by the fashion department and squirt you with fragrance as you walked by. Now, imagine the odor to be 100 times stronger and it never leaving even after a bath and when trying to sleep at night. For the neuro-stressed individual, consider that it’s not just the aroma over-stimulating the sense of smell, but all of the senses continuously aroused. The taste of the meal, the sounds of the traffic, the feel of elastic on your waistband, and the pressure on your muscles like you hiked a big hill, everything all at once with no “off switch”. Maybe you could cope for a while, but over time anyone’s nerves would get a little jagged.
For the child that is stressed or has trouble integrating their sensory system, these over-stimulating sensory experiences are very real. Often, the child has exhausted all of their coping strategies and may yell at you, throw the stapler or kick over the chair. They are demonstrating that they are at their wits end. They do not hate the stapler or want to damage the chair. If you ask them this, you are missing the point and will only further add to the chaos and uncertainty in the child’s thoughts. You don’t have to allow the behavior, but you do have to understand it. You also have to understand your own unexamined and non-productive beliefs about children and adult relationships.
The child whom has the tendency for total meltdowns, can only express their profound discomfort when they know they are in the presence of a parent that will show up no matter what. They can only really decompress when they know there is so much love in the relationship that there is no potential for being abandoned. Children must process the mixed up sensory experiences of their day. Melt downs, when you see it this way, are inevitable. That the child melts down with you is a testament to the strength the child trusts in your loving relationship. It is important to understand that your child is letting it all go and blow up before your very eyes because they love you.
Now what to do to help them? Go into detective mode and observe what they do that brings them a sense of calmness and cohesion. Notice what disrupts their focus and causes chaos. Gradually increase their repertoire of the calm and coherent activities. Gradually decrease the frequency of the chaotic. Eventually describe your detective work to your child when they are receptive. “I notice that when you play with your Lego set you are really calm and focused, it looks like you enjoy yourself at those times.” After a meltdown, reflect back, “Hey that birthday party was crazy, don’t you think? Did you notice how hard it was for you to put on your seatbelt and listen to Mommy’s music on the way home? It kind of looked like you were uncomfortable. What do you think?”
Eventually you can “book mark” calm experiences together and chaotic experiences. Then you can invite your child to minimize chaos by introducing calm. Always without judgement and always with great self-respect for yourself and your need for coherence. Super stressed kids and kids with neurologic diagnosis have incredible disconnects between the brain and body. Usually, their neuro-typical parents can’t begin to appreciate what their child is experiencing. They provide short-term and non-effective solutions. The parent that is motivated by love and compassion can be the exception. And that’s you.