Tag Archives: meltdowns

You can’t unsee, you can’t unhear and you can’t unparent

December 30th, 2019

“I treat all my children the same,” my friend said to me.  “There’s no difference.  I don’t have favorites and what goes for one, goes for all.”  I held my tongue, but inwardly I winced.  There is not a chance in hell I could do that, I thought.

I didn’t always think that way.  The myth that we treat each child the same way as the other ones has a firm hold on many of us.  We see ourselves as fair, dispassionate dispensers of goodies and discipline.  What’s more, we think that if we parent in an undifferentiated way, we have taught our children fairness, equality and some sort of justice.  It’s hard to let go of that idea.

And then you have a child like my first, the one with outsized mental health needs.  I had to parent him in a way I never imagined.  And when his brother came along, I just kept on doing things the same way.

For starters, my oldest son couldn’t soothe himself from day one.  Oh, he tried.  He sucked his thumb well into childhood.  He didn’t give up his teddy bear until almost middle school.  But that was for the small hurts.  If something sent him into a tailspin, including yelling or anger, he couldn’t get back to calmness by himself.  There would be a meltdown or a long, shuddering crying jag until he exhausted himself or I sat with him, often for a long time and talked him through it, guiding his mood and thoughts away from anger and pain.

When he was older, the meltdowns could lead to self-harm.  Taking a tough stance, yelling or even a firm voice often led to him bruising, scratching or cutting. It reduced the pain inside, he’d later explain. That sure put a stop to a bunch of tactics.  The point of setting a limit or giving a consequence is never to increase the odds of self-harm.

He was also impulsive and couldn’t apply what he’d learned in one situation to the next.  When we went to Target, I’d have to lay out the plan in advance:  we are buying this, you can have gum (or not) and then we are going home.  Things needed to be predictable, we couldn’t mix things up.    I could never ask, “What shirt/socks/sweatshirt should we buy?”  Having lots of choices kick started his anxiety.  Instead I’d say, “I like the red one and green one.  Which one do you like?”  And if that worked at Target, we’d have to begin all over again in the grocery store.

None of these things were true for his younger brother.  Sure, he would cry or have the occasional temper tantrum as a small child.  But they lasted a short time and they vanished as he grew older.  He was confident about trying new things.  Once, I remarked in wonder to a friend that he had no problem choosing a t-shirt.  She said, “That’s what’s supposed to happen.  That’s what regular kids do.”

But I approached parenting him using the lessons I had learned with his brother.  I didn’t know how to unparent.  I couldn’t unlearn the way I’d learned to parent already. I didn’t know how to wipe clean the experiences I’d had with his older brother. I usually gave him two choices when picking out shirts.  I was careful to set limits in a way that didn’t trigger a tantrum.  I over-explained.  I drew a map of how our excursions would go.   Maybe it didn’t hurt him, but he didn’t need it.

Like many parents, I drew on how I was raised, remembering how my own mother did things.  Problem was, my older son wasn’t like me, so that was a bust, though later I circled back to those strategies for son number two.  As a child, I picked up on the nuances and followed the rules without complaint (for the most part).  I didn’t need things spelled out and navigated childhood pretty well.  One parent in a support group I led was the same way.  Her daughter had changed in one year from an easy going, high achieving teen to one whose default setting was defiance.  She told this story to our group and said, “My mother used to say, ‘someday you’ll have a child just like you.’  I only wish I had!” I felt the same way.

A friend of mine used to say that we raise only children these days, no matter how many siblings are in a family. The way it used to be, she says, is that the Jones kids would all be in choir and the Smith kids would get swimming lessons.  It was a lot easier on parents who do the scheduling and shuttling.  Now, one child takes guitar lessons, another goes to art class and a third plays soccer.  She’s right, we encourage our children’s individual interests and passions. Maybe that’s what’s fair and equal.

Being a parent is a hard job.  Parenting a child with mental health needs is 100 times harder.  Each strategy we find that works, we hang on to.  Each routine that makes things a little easier, we incorporate.  Every unorthodox approach and each new way we phrase things is our new way of parenting.  Maybe we shouldn’t unlearn them.  We worked hard for them.

 

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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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