Originally published on The Mighty
When I first read the now viral rant of a frustrated parent seeking to establish a secret code to alert other parents when they wanted back-up while their child was having a meltdown – I was left feeling conflicted. I understand it was meant as a joke, but so many aspects of this rant made me uneasy.
I very vividly remember a time, six years ago, when the intervention of another adult was very helpful in resolving a tantrum by my typically developing daughter.
We had just pulled up to preschool, and my daughter was screaming and flaying about because she wanted to carry her Cheerios into her classroom. This could not happen. The more I tried to reason with her the louder her screams became.
I suddenly heard, “Vivian that is not OK.” I looked behind me to see the director of the preschool giving my daughter a very stern look to accompany those words. Within seconds Vivian calmed herself and walked into her classroom.
Before I could leave the building the director pulled me aside. She explained she had intervened because sometimes escalations like that can be stopped when someone who the child is not as comfortable with says something. It definitely seemed to do
the trick in this case.
There were a few things markedly different about this example than the one described in the now viral rant. First, the person intervening was a professional educator who was offering assistance to resolve the situation – she did not use harsh language or use her power as a stranger to scare my child into submission. She simply explained to my daughter that her behavior was not acceptable and would not be tolerated by any adult. I was truly appreciative for her assistance.
Fast forward four years, I am in a crowded bookstore with my daughter, who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum. I was purchasing books as holiday gifts for my husband’s staff for a party that was to be held that night. I really could not leave even though I saw the signs that my daughter was headed toward a meltdown… an actual meltdown, not a temper tantrum. In my daughter’s case, the crowded environment, bright lights, being warm despite being cold outside, noises from the coffee shop, an inconsistent ringing of cell phones all worked together to create the perfect storm of sensory overload and exhaustion.
When I first noticed she was moving toward a meltdown – I look off her jacket to try and make her more comfortable. I then handed her chew tube and encouraged her to use it for self-calming, but these efforts were not enough. Before I knew it, loud screams were erupting from my normally passive child. She began to kick at everything and nothing. She was violently rocking her body so her head would slam into her stroller. When she thought she was close enough to a shelf she would try to pull down as many books as she could.
This was one of my daughter’s first public meltdowns. The stares of the people around me were turning me to stone. My daughter felt them too because the more people stared, the more anxious she became, the louder she would scream and harder she would thrust her body.
No one offered to help, many people acted like it wasn’t happening, but enough people stopped what they were doing and stared at my daughter. Some even whispered, loudly enough for me to hear, about how I should handle the situation.
I was busy trying to comfort my daughter, just as any mother would when her child was experiencing so much discomfort. Caroline was starting to calm down and regain control of her body when the manager came over and asked me to remove my daughter from the store, as her screams were disrupting other holiday shoppers. I was relatively new to being a special needs parent so I did not know how to respond. I apologized and mumbled something about my daughter having autism –that she wasn’t throwing a tantrum but having a meltdown. The manager looked embarrassed and saw the large list I had in my hand and asked if he could finish gathering the books for me while my daughter and I found a quieter part of the store to wait. I accepted his offer because it was a solution that worked for all of us. Caroline would be able to calm down, my books would be gathered for purchase and other customers would no longer be bothered by Caroline’s meltdown.
But now that I have been around the blocks a few times, I want parents to know that when you see a child having a true meltdown, the best thing to do is not to stare. If you want to help, ask the parent if there is anything you can do. But judgmental looks and harsh words are going to have no affect on my autistic child during a meltdown. And while, they may have an impact on my typically developing child during a tantrum I don’t want her to learn it is OK to speak harshly or give mean looks to someone who struggling – whatever the reason.
I want my daughters to see every opportunity as one to demonstrate understanding and kindness, and the best way to do that is by modeling. When I see a child having a meltdown or a tantrum, I tell my kids “it looks she is having a hard time.” I frequently ask the parent if there is anything I can do to help while offering a supportive smile. Most times, the parents refuse the help but appreciate the warmth of a smile in the middle of a storm.
I understand the viral rant was meant as a joke. But I want people to understand that jokes like this can lead to a greater level of misunderstanding and escalate true meltdowns. Our job as parents is a hard one, anyway you cut it. And sometimes we do need help from our village, but that help should come from a place of understanding and kindness.