Tag Archives: meltdown

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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What’s in your wallet?

February 21st, 2013

6417415359_c09182877eNot too long ago my youngest son and I went off to Walmart to get some much needed supplies.  We each grabbed a cart and our plan was to meet at the checkout aisle in 30 minutes.  Little did we know that three hours later I would be supporting a mom whose daughter was having a mental health crisis and having trouble accessing mobile crisis services.

The store was filled with shoppers and lots of noise on this busy Saturday.  Every aisle I visited had at least two people, sometimes many, in conversations.  There was one constant sound in the store, though, and it was a young girl screaming about a doll. At first I ignored it, thinking it would stop when she got tired or her parents left the store.  I remembered at times my boys would cry because I would not buy them another toy while we were out shopping.  So I had learned to tune those sounds out.  But I couldn’t tune this out ….it was different.

The yelling was getting louder and closer with the little girl now screaming “I want that doll.” Then the chase began.  The little girl ran right by me screaming, chased by her crying mom who was walking fast to catch up with her.   This went on for a long time and I kept thinking that the manager or an employee would offer the mom some help or even call the police to help calm the situation down.  But no one did anything.  When my son and I got to the cashier, we started unloading our carts.  I could still hear the mom crying so I looked for her.  When I saw her trying to restrain her daughter and being bitten, I knew I had to try to help.

I bent down and said to her “I don’t know how I can help you right now but I would like to try. Please let me know what I can do”.  By now there were at least 20 people watching us and not one said “I’ll help too.”  She said that she could not pick her child up because she was biting and kicking her and she needed someone strong to help.  As I stood up to see who I could ask, a man entered the store and came right over to us asking how he could help. The two of them carried her out as she was trying to hit and bite them.

The mom asked the man to put the girl in her car seat so she could not hit or bite anymore. The girl was stiff and rigid and it was impossible to get her in her seat.  The man restrained the girl and the mom and I began to brainstorm ideas.  She told me her five year old daughter had ADHD and saw a clinician. When I asked, it turned out she had the clinician’s crisis number.  She called and explained that she could not get her daughter into her car seat and need them to come to Walmart and help her.  She was told she had to bring her daughter to their office.  They offered nothing else and that was the end of the call.

I then asked her if she knew about mobile crisis services and she did not. I explained, then asked if she wanted me to call for her.  She said yes but please, don’t call the police.  I said I would not.  So while the man was still restraining the girl, I ran into Walmart to use the phone and call for help.

First, I called directory assistance.  I had the address and knew the kind of service but they replied they had no such listing and even though we tried to brainstorm, it got me nowhere.  I then called the local hospital’s emergency room for the number.  No luck. Next, I ran and got my purse out of the cart because I thought I had the mobile crisis business card in my wallet.  I didn’t. I ran to my car to see if I had it in my briefcase but again, I didn’t.

Finally, I ran back to the mom’s car to find the little girl was still so out of control that the man was not able to let her go.  I felt like a failure and said to the mom, “I can’t find the number.  Do you want me to call a relative or someone?”  She told me her husband had just picked up her message and was trying to find a ride.   I told her I thought she was doing a great job of staying in control and handling the situation. I gave her my card, told her about PPAL and said to please call.   At this point, the young girl’s father arrived.  The girl was still crying, but exhausted now and it was easier to get her in her car seat.  They thanked us and off they went. It had been almost two hours since the crisis began.

I went back into Walmart and talked to the manager.  She said they usually call the police when there is an incident, but didn’t feel it was the right thing to do with a young child.  I explained that the police shouldn’t be your only option.  Later that day, I returned with a stack of business cards that I asked her to pass to her employees and leave at the service phone.   I put a few cards in my glove compartment and several in my wallet.  Now when I am in a store I give the manager one and ask her to post it by the main phone and let their employees know what it is.  I would never want another family to have problems accessing a service that is intended for this purpose.   So, will you be ready to help someone in crisis in your community?  What’s in your wallet?

Beth is the mother of three young men with mental health and medical challenges.  She is a strong advocate and involved with several groups and initiatives around genetics, medical and mental health.  Beth is the Training Coordinator for PPAL.


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