About 4 years ago we were driving to church and had to wait in some traffic to park (we went to a rather large church). In order to speed things up, I took my daughter out the car and walked into the church to an agreed meeting place. The problem was this place was busier than expected and noisy than I would have liked.
The trouble came when I had too much stuff to pick up my daughter and carry her out of the room and my phone battery had died. By the time my husband found us, my daughter was hiding under her toy buggy (part of the carrying problem) and crying hysterically.
To a casual onlooker this probably looked like a temper tantrum, but in actual fact it was a meltdown. I am sure someone must have walked passed and judged either my parenting or my daughter’s behaviour, but in fact neither was the issue here (accept maybe agreeing to take the buggy with us in the first place, thus rendering myself incapable of carrying everything).
I have written a long post about Sensory Meltdowns in the past, but a friend has asked my husband and I about how we cope with them and so this is written in an effort to answer that. My children do have tantrums, my son had a higher propensity for them than my daughter, but I certainly have experienced those. The “I want a Lego toy and I want it now!” screaming is relatively easy to deal with, you just don’t give in and pretty soon my children have learned that tantrums don’t work.
A meltdown is a totally different animal, you can see it coming. It generally involves noise, bright lights and sensory overload. Add not enough sleep or some sugar and you have a perfect storm headed your way. A meltdown can be of a tantrum persuasion (“I want that NOW”), which makes it a tricky one to deal with as you still cannot give in, but the child’s ability to be sensible is zero. I think most parents have experienced these. It is part and parcel of being a parent with a young child (all young children get into sensory overload at some point).
In our experience though, sensory meltdowns without a tantrum attached contain pure raw, unfettered emotion. There is seldom a motive behind them, our children are not trying to manipulate us into anything. They. Just. Can’t. Cope. Anymore. Their body and brain are screaming at them at the same time and they don’t know what to do. My daughter has left activities like choir or ballet in a complete state and has run to me screaming and hysterical, over a small issue. My son has fallen apart at friend’s homes. All I can do in those moments is hug them and rock them and quietly tell them “It is OK, you will be OK.” I am relieved when this happens in the company of friends who understand, who don’t judge me and who give me the space to help my kid. Like the time my daughter landed up under the table having a panic attack because a friend’s husband walked into the room. Fortunately, now that she is 8, she doesn’t do that anymore. That friend is an OT and has also really made a huge difference in my daughter coping with her sensory system using the ALERT programme, which means sensory meltdowns are infrequent with her now.
The most challenging part of being a parent with a child with sensory processing disorder is dealing with labels. Not the labels applied to our children, but the labels that other people stick on us. Neurotic, over-protective, pandering, over-sensitive, controlling are words that have been used with us and other parents that I have spoken to over the years. In fact, I once had a parent apologise as I held my screaming daughter in my arms that he had just thought I was just a bit over-protective when I told him that she was sensitive.
A parent of a young sensory child does everything to keep them on an even keel, because not doing so results in a miserable experience for everyone and the effects of a meltdown are felt for a number of days afterwards. Things that parents of neurotypical kids manage with ease become a minefield to the parent of a child with SPD. When my child has a tantrum, it is easy to shrug it off, help them over it and carry on with the day, but when my child has a sensory meltdown I feel like I have failed them. I have not looked after their sensory needs adequately or I have listened when a friend says “Don’t worry she will be fine” or I have chosen to let my need to buy one more thing at the shops override the voice telling me we need to get home. When my child has a sensory meltdown, the ripples carry on for days. Sleep is disturbed, nightmares are frequent, tears erupt for a few days afterwards and we suddenly become hermits again.
Kirby has 3 blogs:
Sean’s website is www.cedar.consulting