Blog#18: Meltdowns – two sides to every story

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. Meltdowns, and everything that comes with them, are a highly emotive subject for families with PDAers. Often on online forums, parents post about how they are at their wits end with immensely challenging behaviours, and are sometimes called out on their feelings by neurodivergent individuals and parents, desperate to impress upon the world the sense of helplessness and fear the individual who is having the meltdown is experiencing.

Both sides of the story are so valid.

It’s incredibly frightening to watch your child lose control, and become so distressed that they injure themselves, property and other people. But at the same time, that child is in the middle of a catastrophic and terrifying loss of control and explosion of emotions. They are left emotionally traumatised, embarrassed and devastated about their actions and may not be able to verbalise any of this. Parents, who’ve had traditional notions of reward and punishment forced upon them their whole lives, and certain expectations of behaviour, may be unwillingly perpetuating this cycle. And even those parents who have become more enlightened and aim to create a low-demand home environment will still inevitably witness their child have a meltdown at some point. It’s not something we can ignore, brush under the carpet or pretend doesn’t happen.

Meltdowns can affect not only the immediate family, but wider circles of relatives and friends and even jobs and parental relationships, and the repercussions of distressed child behaviour and the confusion and fear of the parents can have really serious long-term consequences. Pretending it doesn’t happen, keeping it ‘in the family’ and never discussing it is common. Distressed behaviours, especially those which involve physical behaviours, are taboo in society. You wouldn’t bat an eye if you saw a toddler screaming in a supermarket, but a twelve-year old? Public meltdowns are doubly distressing as not only are the parent/s and child suffering deeply, they are also opening up their less-than-perfect world to the judgement of total strangers who very often will just see a ‘naughty’ child having a ‘tantrum’. Which as I’m sure many of you reading this will know, adds yet another layer of stress on to an already highly-stressed situation.

Of course, there is more than one kind of meltdown (or panic attack, as they are also referred to). When the PDA brain senses a threat and is no longer able to cope, they enter fight, flight, freeze, fawn. So, some of you may have a PDAer who doesn’t ‘fight’, but runs away. Some of your PDAers may freeze and become uncommunicative and immobile. And some may dive deeply in to masking and fawning, resulting in a ‘silent’ meltdown which may take a long time to recover from. All of these states are as distressing and frightening as each other, but not all of them may be as visible to the untrained eye. Knowing your child’s body language and looking for signs of overwhelm can help to allay a meltdown, if you are lucky. Employing distraction, removal of a trigger, or simply allowing them to take time out alone with no demands may be enough to help them regulate.

When JJ’s toddler tantrums gradually evolved and morphed in to huge meltdowns which fall in to the ‘fight’ category, I was frightened and at a total loss. But even after the autism diagnosis, I struggled to find resources to help our family through this. I called various charities, was advised to do a parenting course, I even asked a SEN teacher at one of my former places of work, but nobody seemed to know what to say to me. I wanted to know how to help JJ not have the meltdowns, but I also wanted to know how to help him whilst he was IN a meltdown. There is plenty of help and advice about the former – reducing external stressors which may increase anxiety over a period of hours or days, allowing quiet time, considering the sensory environment etc. But what I found absolutely no help with at all was what to do when JJ was in his ‘red zone’, as we came to call it. When he was at the mercy of his amygdala, when he was not able to think clearly, when all he was doing was fulfilling a primal urge to protect himself from threat. THIS was what we struggled with as a family, and still struggle with sometimes now.

Writing this I’m aware that this is still such a taboo subject; nobody wants to ‘out’ their child as ‘violent and destructive’. And yes, language IS really important here. Using words like those can imply an adult motive, an intent to hurt or cause unnecessary harm. And I believe that’s the crux of what neurodivergent adults take issue with. Once we as parents can adjust our thinking and realise that the behaviour is not about us, it’s not personal (although it may seem completely so). Once we can put our own feelings aside and be silent with our child, once we can accept the emotions need to run their course, once we learn not to impose arbitrary punishments which mean nothing and have no effect other than to increase feelings of shame…Only once we can learn to achieve this new mindset can we ever move forward – and help our child move forward – to a happier and calmer place.

And let me say, I am in no way negating the difficult feelings that arise for us as parents when we witness distressed child behaviour. As parents AND carers, it can take an enormous toll on us mentally and physically and this really needs to be accepted and addressed by professionals. WE need understanding, WE need support, WE need care. Have you heard the oxygen mask analogy? The one about putting your own mask on first when you’re on a plane. If you can’t breathe, how can you care for your child? Whilst too often our children are ignored and failed by the system, falling through the cracks because nobody knows what to ‘do’ about PDA, we are often left to fall through those cracks too. But that’s a whole other post…

Accepting that distressed behaviour can and will happen gives us as parents space to not only work to avoid it, but also try and plan for it. Accepting this behaviour may seem impossible to you, but what other choice do you have? You can’t stop an express train when it is thundering along the tracks. You can’t put the brakes on. But you can get the buffers out to minimise the damage. You can move vulnerable objects out of the way of the train in order that they don’t get broken. Shouting and screaming and begging and pleading isn’t going to help, the train is too fast and too loud. All you can do is wait until it stops. Realise that the driver lost control, and help them to calm down and feel better in any way you can. What happened was not out of choice and it was not aimed at you. Once control is lost, simply demanding it back is not realistic. Patience, understanding and time are your friends here. And don’t think I’m writing this from a place where I’ve nailed it. I most certainly have not. But I’ve made ALL the mistakes, and knowing what to do and what not to do is key. And never forgetting that your child doesn’t want to behave like this, and is suffering throughout a meltdown likely to a greater extent than you, may just help you be their guide through this difficult time.

*If you and your child are struggling with meltdowns, please check out Newbold Hope – Distressed Behaviour Information & Support*

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