We live in tempestuous New England. We regularly see nor’easters, thunderstorms, blizzards and freezing rain. We obsessively check forecasts, know our meteorologists by their first names and trade predictions. We prepare by buying milk and batteries, filling our gas tanks and doing contingency planning. We’ve learned how to survive almost all kinds of extreme weather. But because this is New England, we never quite know if Mother Nature is going to throw her worst at us or go easy this time.
Yesterday Hurricane Sandy barrelled through. It wasn’t the monster storm it could have been but it demanded our attention and respect. This morning, I looked at the autumn leaves and branches hammered down into my yard and chairs on the deck that the wind tossed around. Others have a lot more clean up to do, but we’ll all tackle it while knowing that another storm is inevitable.
Parents whose children have meltdowns, tantrums, blowups and explosions have exactly the same coping skills and knowledge as New Englanders coping with turbulent weather. The storms that they deal with happen in their families, often with very little warning. If they see or hear the warning signs, they try to prepare. If they can minimize the damage, they take those steps. And when it’s all over, they know that it’s a matter of time before they see the next tempest.
Many parents never know how much time they have to prepare. Sometimes, however, we can see the warning signs in advance. In The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us, one mom describes dealing with a public meltdown: “Kids let you know it’s coming. Their eyes grow dead and dull, like a killer’s. Their limbs jerk, and their sticky hands begin frantically searching for hair to pull…You have only seconds to decide. Do you finish up what you’re doing, or do you leave?” Other times, parents will describe their child going zero to sixty in about 10 seconds flat, leaving them with no time to divert the coming storm. But having a plan of action and laying in strategies as you would supplies is essential.
Once the storm is upon us, we are often unsure how long it will last. When my son was in first grade, he began having epic blow ups. Some were explosive, some included banging his head or scratching his face and others included copious weeping. I registerd how severe they were but was surprised when his therapist wanted to know how long they lasted. “Most of them go on for about 40 minutes,” I told him half in horror and half in awe. Managing your child’s behavior when they are angry and volatile is one of the most difficult things a parent has to do says Janet Lehman, MSW. She advises developing a “rage plan” to keep yourself and your child safe, asking your child to help you figure out what to do and seek professional help tailored to your child’s needs.
Then there’s the aftermath. Sometimes there’s also cleanup. When my son was 8 and 9, he would trash his bedroom during meltdowns, throwing clothes, toys, even his bedding, pillows and mattress on the floor. He had to pick everything up (with some help) which was a great idea but did nothing to forestall the next episode. Parents describe their children after a meltdown as agitated, lethargic, weepy, irritated, calm and remorseful (or not). Other children in the family can be angry or blase, embarrassed or frightened. You know a major storm passed through and you set about measuring its impact.
Like New Englanders, parents of children with mental health issues learn a lot about storms. We become meteorologists, predicting intensity, duration and impact. We become better at preparation, experts at minimizing damage and relieved by the ones that weren’t as bad as we expected. We also find out that there are many different kinds of meltdowns and blowups. We learn to survive them, sometimes to manage them and, if we’re lucky, share them with other parents who understand.