People are hard for me.
Last weekend was filled with people – a water system sales guy came over right after work on Friday, we had our church small group on Saturday morning, I took the kids to a park Saturday afternoon, we went to church Sunday morning, and we visited my parents Sunday afternoon. So – a complete stranger in my house for several hours, and a crowded, noisy, open-plan park, on top of a weekend already social-heavy, with the looming threat of preparing for the babysitter to come Monday morning, was not a good situation.
Unexpected changes of routine are also hard for me.
Last weekend had a lot of those also. I had hoped to celebrate Candlemas with the boys on Friday after work by melting some beeswax and making earth candles in the planter out front (I had even managed to find my old candle-making supplies from high school!). But then my husband made the appointment with the water system guy (for the promise of a Home Depot gift card, which is always useful), which started 30 minutes earlier than I had thought and went considerably longer than I had expected. So because of a misunderstanding about the start time I didn’t get home until shortly after he arrived, meaning my normal coming-home rituals and reconnection with the kids were hampered; the length of time he stayed meant we didn’t get to make candles and didn’t even get to have time together as a family until dinner (which I had to throw together last minute as soon as the sales guy left).
In addition to that, I forgot how crowded the parks around here are on Saturdays this time of year, and this was a new park for us. That in itself was stressful, because we didn’t have a routine for where we would go first, what we would do next, etc., and what favorite corners we would end up in, and it is hard to develop those routines when there are so many other people around. But it became exponentially more stressful when Rondel didn’t stay put while I maneuvered the stroller around an awkward spot, and wandered off into the crowd. Those 5-10 minutes before I found him (ensconced in the arms of a mother with an older daughter, who had come across him panicking and offered to help him) were some of the worst I’ve ever lived through, as I’m sure any parent would agree!
Then, Limerick had a low fever and runny nose Saturday night/Sunday morning, so my husband stayed home with him while I took the other two to church by myself – which was not really that stressful, but it did change things up and force me to make a lot of logistical/efficiency decisions that I don’t normally need to. Not a big deal in itself, but not ideal after the two days prior.
So… I crashed, Sunday night. As in, I laid myself down on the bed after dinner and cried, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. I had spent all my energy on small talk, relationships, social navigation, people in all their myriad forms, and I had none left to craft the semblance of “engaged parent” for even the remaining hour or two till bedtime.
We hear/talk a lot about children having meltdowns – how to help them, how to distinguish meltdowns from tantrums, how to prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place – but we seem to think that once someone is an adult, they’ve somehow managed to outgrow them. Well, adults can still be introverted, socially anxious, and sensitive to sensory and emotional stimuli. We can still push ourselves too far. We can still collapse, now, just like we did when we were children – and the best way to help us is with space, rest, patience, and gentleness.
(Protip: it is not helpful, in the moment where a meltdown is happening, to try to identify a specific trigger and explain all the ways that trigger is really insignificant or fixable and therefore unworthy of causing said meltdown. Did you notice how many things I mentioned in this post that contributed to my meltdown? And yet the apparent in-the-moment trigger was a whiny baby during dinner. When someone is emotionally collapsing and feeling completely overwhelmed, they aren’t going to be able to give you the blow-by-blow account of the multiple days’ events that led up to the meltdown.)
(Another protip: It is also not helpful, if you see a person supporting someone else through a meltdown, to start talking to the support person about how you don’t understand what’s going on and really don’t know what to do, with a shocked, confused, and/or repulsed look on your face. The support person is busy taking care of someone in clear emotional/sensory need; they most likely do not have the time or bandwidth to simultaneously coach you through the ins and outs of what a meltdown is, why this particular individual is experiencing one, and how he/she prefers to be assisted through it. If you want to learn, bring it up another time. But in the moment, shut up and give the individual some space and privacy unless they indicate otherwise.)
Things to remember:
- I (or my child) am not necessarily melting down because I dislike you, the people in my immediate vicinity. In my experience, meltdowns occur more around trusted friends and family.
- I (or my child) am most likely not melting down because of something you did personally, but because of some environmental factor pushing us over the edge. This could include:
- Physical discomfort (itchy clothes, hot/cold feelings, allergies, hunger, fatigue, etc.)
- Sensory overload (large groups of people, loud noises, irritating noises, bright lights, strong/unpleasant/unusual smells, etc.)
- Anxiety (crowds, unfamiliar locations, unexpected changes to routine, uncertainty with how to navigate the social terrain, etc.)
- I (or my child) would very much rather not be melting down, especially in front of you, and are trying our hardest to contain, control, and calm ourselves.
- For example, Rondel, today, when I asked him to try communicating without screaming, told me that screaming was the only way he could tell me how he felt. This statement is not always true of him – but in that moment, with the emotional capacity available to him in his meltdown, it was true, and I needed that reminder.
- I (or my child) would appreciate it if you could minimize reference to meltdowns and welcome us back with open arms when we are ready to rejoin you.
- If you help us avoid triggers, pace ourselves, and prevent collapse – without making us feel like incompetent and defective human beings by snide/cutting remarks or tones – that would be amazing. That would feel like full and complete acceptance and love. But I understand how hard that is in an ableist culture. It is still hard for me not to address myself with negative and shaming thoughts following a meltdown, given how much our society values self-control, self-sufficiency, and outward appearances. So I don’t expect otherwise from you – but if you can consistently provide otherwise, you will become one of the few people I implicitly trust, and around whom I can step out from behind my layers and facades.
Meltdowns happen. Rondel had one just today, victim to another over-scheduled weekend (which was partly my fault, and I feel awful about it). We can try to suppress them with feelings of shame, isolating the individual for their socially inappropriate behavior, or we can support the individual through them, and learn from them so that we can be better prepared for the future. I know which choice I’d rather make – for myself, and for my children.