Tag Archives: meltdowns

Looking at the eyes while parenting

February 15th, 2019

When my son was born, the nurse in the hospital told me he was an old soul.  She could tell, she said, just by looking in his eyes.  My mother backed her up.  She said she could see all the wisdom and acceptance he was born with and wasn’t it a shame that he would lose that as he got older.  All babies have this pure, precious gaze she noted.  Me, I just cherished those moments when I was holding him and he would look deep into my eyes, absorbing me, letting me absorb him.

Fast forward to elementary school.  By the time my son was seven, I was talking about his eyes in a very different way.  I told his therapist that his eyes changed when he was having a meltdown.  That it was as if a different child was looking out, one I often couldn’t reach.  When he would have panic attacks, fly into rages or harm himself, his eyes would change before, during and for little while after.  I watched his eyes to predict how intense it would be and whether I had a chance of averting what was coming.  Sometimes, though not often, I did.  And when things had returned to normal, the look in his eyes did, too.

The eyes don’t lie.

Later there were mornings when I’d wake him for school and when his eyes opened, I’d just know.  In some ways, they looked like his mischievous toddler eyes, sparkling when he was about to be silly. There was a light to his eyes, but it wasn’t always innocent.  He would want to take chances or ignore danger.  He would charm people into breaking the rules for him.  Sometimes, he seemed like a ticking bomb or a piece of fragile crystal.  I could tell by his eyes to handle him with care.

Then there were the times when he wasn’t wild, just angry and hurt.  Not a normal anger rather, a rage that burned out of control, tantrums that lasted for up to two hours or more.  Not just a normal hurt instead, the kind where, as he used to say, “I want it to hurt as much on the outside as I do on the inside.”  His eyes didn’t sparkle, they were flatter, darker and sometimes cruel. He might say awful things to me, he might be destructive.  More than once, I would watch a room get dismantled – chairs overturned, sofa cushions thrown across the room and anything small enough hurtled through space.

Then he would come back to himself and his eyes would be his own.  They would soften, they would be clear and they would provide a connection instead of a wall or shield.

I thought I was alone in this.  Then one mom told me how her son’s eyes would change and it was as if he vanished somewhere.  “It’s like I’ve lost my child,” she told me.  “When that happens I am always on my guard because I don’t know what he’ll do.”  Not long after another parent echoed this saying, “I always watch her eyes. When they begin to change, I brace myself.”

Julie A. Fast, author of “Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder” writes about this phenomenon for BP Hope.   She writes that depression and mania both profoundly affect the entire eye, from lids to lashes.  She has observed that there are three clues to recognizing mania in the eyes. (My own guess is that parents, who are the supreme experts on their children, observe many of these changes when their child’s mood shifts, even if no one has clinically named it mania.)

Clue #1 is when you see sparkling eyes, maybe even with shimmering flecks in them so they light up.  This was the look my son had when his eyes would sparkle and he would ignore signs of danger.  On one school field trip he said he could walk across a busy Boston street and be unharmed because the cars would simply avoid him. We had to hold on tight to keep him from testing that theory.

Clue #2 is when you see the eyes become darker and for some, the pupils become wider.  This is what my son’s eyes looked like before he had rages, when he hurt so much he wanted to hurt everyone and everything around him.  It’s when his eyes almost looked mean and flat.

Clue #3 is when you notice the eyes changing shape.  They can widen with euphoria and narrow with suspicion.  The person sometimes doesn’t look like themselves.  You wonder, looking at your child, if it’s really them in there.

Throughout his childhood I was told my son had beautiful eyes with long lashes.  I smiled because I was always pleased to have his strengths noticed, beautiful eyes among them.  But it meant they were observing his eyes, even if it was in a quick glance.  When I was told this, I would always turn my head and focus on his eyes.  When they were his own clear eyes, I’d smile.  But sometimes his eyes were clues.  Those times,  they were the best early warning system I had.

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Weathering different storms

October 30th, 2012

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.

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