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Public service announcement about meltdowns

This picture was NOT taken between 5:45 and 6:15 this evening...
This is not my first post about meltdowns and it probably won't be my last. Meltdown is an ugly word. Watching a meltdown is ugly. Watching YOUR child have a meltdown is scary, sad, disturbing, frustrating, and embarrassing. Scary because there's very little you can do about it. Sad because you know your child is a good kid who doesn't mean to "behave" like that, although sensory-related meltdowns have little or nothing to do with behavior. Disturbing because your child who 5 minutes ago was happy and playing has suddenly transformed into a screaming, thrashing, wild little creature that barely even resembles your child. Frustrating because it always happens at inopportune moments like when you've spent 2 minutes too long in the grocery store and he/she is ready to leave NOW. And yes, it's embarrassing no matter how secure you are with yourself as a parent and how little you value the opinions of total strangers. Because let's face it, in the general public, nobody cares why your child is kicking and screaming and hyperventilating and burying their face in their shirt while snot runs out of their nose and they gag and cough. All people see is a kid throwing a fit. You can see the looks of disgust on their faces and feel their judgemental stares, as if they just KNOW that you must be a terrible, weak, permissive parent to allow your child to act like that in public. But the worst part of watching your child have a meltdown is wondering how it will impact their future if they don't learn to cope with the things that evoke those fight-or-flight responses from their nervous system.

Did you know that a sensory-related meltdown is a fight-or-flight response? It's true. The same instinctive reaction that kicks into action when our lives are threatened can evoke what may look like a temper tantrum in a child with sensory processing disorder (or sensory integration dysfunction, whatever you like to call it). According to Angie Voss, OTR/L who has a FABULOUS website about sensory processing disorder, this is what fight-or-flight can look like in a child:

What Does “Fight or Flight” Look Like?There are many different manifestations of “fight or flight” but some common responses may be:
  • Hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, pushing (especially while standing in line or in new challenging/overwhelming situations or activities)
  • Trying to run or escape from the situation
  • Trying to hide under something like a desk, table, or chair
  • Burying themselves in a teacher’s arms, avoiding all eye contact, or trying to curl up in a ball on the floor or at their desk
  • Covering ears or eyes
  • Crying or screaming
  • Hiding in the closet, under couch cushions, or under covers in bed
  • Shutting down completely and not speaking or responding
  • Even falling asleep unexpectedly
(For more information, visit; material copied from here.)

This evening, Raya had what was probably one of her worst meltdowns yet. It started out when I got home from the store and the 3 kids I had left home were sitting at the table eating. When I walked in the door, Raya immediately started whining to me because she was unhappy with Daddy about something. The big kids were eating dinner and Raya wanted a "big chip" because she had already eaten half of her tortilla chip. She started crying when Donny reminded her to say please, and it went downhill from there. First she was crying about that. Then she was crying because she wanted cheese on her chip. Then she was crying because Donny took the chip out of her hand so that I could wrestle her out of the poofy dress-up dress she was wearing over her clothes and an apron. Then she was crying even harder (almost to the point of hyperventilating) because she wanted sour cream on her chip, which she's not allowed to have for the time being. At that point, she had gotten into the high chair and I could see that this was not going to end well, so I got her down and took her into our room where it was dark and quiet to lay down on our bed with her. All the way there, she kicked and screamed and tried to get away from me. She was yelling things that I couldn't understand & didn't make any sense. When I laid on the bed with her and her blanket, the screaming turned into a high-pitched scream that I don't think I've ever heard come out of her. I'm pretty sure all the neighbors could hear it too. She laid there and kicked, yelled at me to let go, and screamed while trying to get away from me. (I wasn't restraining her, I just had my arms around her waist so that she wouldn't get off of the bed.) I turned on the relaxing music that usually helps her calm down but it did nothing for her. Well, except that she started screaming that she wanted to watch Backyardigans on my phone, which I was not about to let her do. I didn't even try to communicate with her because she was well beyond communication at that point. She gagged and coughed several times and luckily didn't have anything in her stomach to vomit or she probably would have. She threw a pillow to the other end of the bed, buried her face in her blanket, and continued to kick, thrash around, and scream as loud as she could make it come out. After several minutes of screaming, Donny came in and picked her up and sat her on his lap. She was somewhat calmer but still crying uncontrollably and breathing rapidly and unevenly. At that point, I left the room because me (and my phone) being there didn't seem to be helping at all. He ended up putting her in the shower and a few minutes later she was feeling much more calm and relaxed and had pretty much pulled out of the meltdown. The whole thing lasted about 30 minutes.

So my public service announcement is this. Sometimes kids have meltdowns. They have nothing to do with the character of the child or the parenting skills of the parents. Some kids' brains don't regulate emotion correctly. They turn a simple disappointment or frustration into an overwhelming emotional obstacle. Meltdowns are not just a child throwing a fit because they didn't get what they wanted. In this case, what triggered the meltdown may have been the fact that she didn't get to have cheese or sour cream on a chip, but there are plenty of times when I don't give her something she wants and she doesn't have a meltdown. The real underlying issue here was that for the last 2 days, she hasn't had a nap and last night she stayed up until 9:00 because of Kaida's birthday party when she usually goes to bed at 6:30 or 7. She was overly tired and she just couldn't cope with how she was feeling.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen too often and it's usually when we're at home. It's almost always related to lack of sleep, disruptions to her schedule, and feeding. We do what we can to prevent them. We do our best to keep her bedtime, nap schedule, and feeding schedule consistent but I can't always do that because we have appointments to go to and 2 older siblings (and Mommy) in school. I'm grateful that this one was at home because watching her in that state of complete chaos is hard enough for me emotionally without having to deal with strangers staring at her and judging both of us. She's a good girl and I'm a good mom, but to see her like she was tonight you'd think the exact opposite. She just got a little too tired. Hopefully tonight she will get the sleep she needs to recharge her body. And thank heavens we have OT tomorrow!

And to end on a positive note, Raya had a nice little snuggle with her grandpa last night. Usually he's chasing the kids (because they love it) and making them scream but she just wanted to "suddle" with him. She climbed up on the couch next to him and they pretended to snore together. :)
And THAT is the Raya that we know and love. :)


  1. Good for you, being so gracious with Raya! In the middle of something like that it is hard to remain calm and logical, but it sounds like you did a great job.

  2. I'm only just beginning to understand my 24 month old son's sensory issues. His OT just this past Friday explained the fight or flight response and related that his response is similar to PTSD symptoms. He doesn't have PTSD, but that is a good analogy for how he feels and acts sometimes. I still have trouble grasping everything that encompasses "sensory" - it's not just sensitivity to loud noise or texture on his hands. It's amazing how much it really affects his tiny body - even how his organs work. How do I explain his issues to others when I can barely grasp it myself? Nobody understands what he is going through.


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