Wendy was kind enough to guest blog in response to my previous post, "Rumble, Rage, Recover", to tell the story from the other side of the meltdown.
After surviving countless of my daughter’s meltdowns, I thought it might be helpful to offer some suggestions on how to survive one from the other side.
There are many triggers for a meltdown. These are the ones I know about:
A reaction to a substance that is a toxin for the individual. With my daughter, Butterfly, this might be MSG, propylene glycol, corn syrup solids, or any one of the other forms of concentrated sugars. These make her angry and impatient, sometimes mean, so it doesn’t take much aggravation to get her to meltdown stage. Dilated, uneven pupils, if accompanied by aggressive behaviour, tell us that we’re in that danger zone.
Another trigger is sensory overload. Again using Butterfly as an example, the buzzing lights, beeping checkout machines, noisy buggies, loud background music, hubbub of gabbling consumers, all combine to cause sensory overload in stores, causing unreasonable behaviour and driving her close to meltdown.
Yet another is low blood sugar. This can happen to any of us that if we don’t eat regularly. Our blood sugar can drop below 4 (by Canadian measure) and cause us to go into "struggle" mode, where we start to sweat for no reason, become anxious, have difficulty comprehending a situation, impaired judgement, and perhaps get impatient and angry. This is particularly so with Butterfly who can become very distressed and angry if she goes without food for more than 4 or 5 hours.
Of course, the best plan is to prevent these triggers, or at least see them coming, and take evasive action before the meltdown happens. For me, this meant carefully monitoring Butterfly’s diet; not spending too long in any one store, especially the worst ones for background noise, or anyplace else with obvious sensory pollution; regularly feeding my child.
Yet sometimes those meltdowns take you by surprise because you’re preoccupied or at the wheel of the car or something that requires your attention. One time we were on our way home from an outing. It had been a while since Butterfly had food, but we were almost home and were merrily discussing what we’d buy if we won the lottery. Butterfly said we’d buy a mansion and give each of her Barbie dolls its own room. I didn’t see what was coming and started to chuckle at this rather silly scenario. Suddenly Butterfly was enraged, calling me a mean bitch, and screaming that I wasn’t being fair if each of her dolls didn’t get its own room. Oh oh. I got her home and ran into the house to get food, quickly. Still outside, she kicked a snow scoop leaning against a tree. Unfortunately it kicked back, its handle whacking her in the mouth and chipping her front tooth. She froze, then suddenly said, "Oh God, that’s my big tooth. That’s my permanent tooth."
Yes, it took something like that to snap her out of it. I got some food into her and she was fine, except for the trip to the dentist to repair the broken tooth. No, we didn’t win the lottery, and no, her Barbie dolls never did get their own rooms. And yes, she was embarrassed that she melted down over something so silly.
The thing is, there is no reasoning with someone in meltdown, because it isn’t a reasonable thing. I think the most important thing to remember is that it isn’t something they are doing to you. It’s something that’s happening to them. Do not engage with the person in meltdown. If they call you names and tell you they hate you, big deal. They don’t mean it. They’re not in control of themselves. Do not argue. If they want a room for each doll in that imaginary mansion, hey... what does it hurt? Don’t wrestle with imaginary dragons.
If they aren’t all the way in meltdown, but clearly getting there, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. If they rage at you, back off. Be neutral, do not fight for your status in their eyes, your politics, your values, your ideology, or anything else. Because it’s all meaningless. Just back off until they’re finished. Then give them some space to cool off. And then ask again.
Once again, it’s not something they’re doing to you, it’s something that’s happening to them. So don’t take it personally. Just be there for them.