Panic! Terror! Meltdown!

My approach in this blog so far has been to write about a problem we’ve had with one of our children, and then explain the strategies that we used to solve it.  (And also list the strategies that we tried that didn’t work!)  Today will be the first time I write about an issue SB is currently having.  We haven’t solved this one yet, so I’m warning you in advance that this post is going to end with “to be continued…”

SB has always had a short fuse.  If a toy isn’t working in some way because a part has come loose, or because it needs a new battery, he loses his temper almost immediately.  He has been prone to hit things, throw things, scream, and cry after discovering that something isn’t working right.  But his behavior is always the worst when he tries to watch us fix it.  Only seconds after one of us takes the toy from him and says, “Let me see if I can fix that…” the tantrum is in full force.  It always seems so completely irrational to us, because if he would just wait 1 or 2 minutes, his toy would probably be fixed.  But it happens every time.  My husband and I learned very early on that if a toy is broken or needs a new battery, the best course of action is to say, “This is broken.  I can’t fix it right now.  I will fix it later.” Then we put the toy aside and fix it or replace its battery after he has gone to bed.  He seems to accept this outcome much more willingly than waiting 1 minute to watch you put in a new battery.  The same is true for a missing piece to a toy.  If a part of a toy is missing, the WRONG thing to say is, “I’ll help you look for it.”  After we look one place and don’t find it, the panic starts and the meltdown quickly follows.  If you are a parent, I’m sure you know that when you look under the bed, between the sofa cushions, and behind the shelves, you will always find little toy parts.  But my husband and I have learned to save our searching for when SB is asleep or at school to prevent meltdowns.

For some unknown reason, this quick-to-panic behavior has escalated in the last 6 months to a point where we can’t seem to go anywhere or do anything as a family without an outburst, or several.  The meltdowns have become daily, sometimes several times a day.  Here is a list of just some of the things that will push SB into a fit of hysteria:

–          Broken toy, or toy that needs a new battery

–          Lost piece to a toy or puzzle

–          DVD player not playing movie immediately (having to sit through commercials, previews, or slow menus, or having to sit through when someone, God forbid, pushed the wrong option on the DVD menu)

–          Anything not working properly the first time you try (for example, when the TV remote needed a new battery and did not respond the first time I tried to used it, or any board game that doesn’t work properly the first time)

–          Closed-captioning turned on when a movie begins (sometimes my husband turns this on when he watches a movie while eating crunchy chips!)

–          His younger brother attempting to buckle his own seat belt (at age 5, he is still getting the hang of doing it all by himself, and it takes him several tries)

–          His younger brother not finishing his dinner fast enough

–          Watching me put on a bracelet, and I don’t get it fastened the first time

–          Someone not selecting the correct options on the first try when playing Mario Kart, or any other favorite game, on the Wii

–          The game Operation (anytime someone touches the metal sides with the tweezers and it makes a buzzing sound)

–          Taking more than one pass to get into a parking space

–          Making a wrong turn or missing a turn and having to turn around

–          Sitting at a red light that has lasted too long

–          Sitting in traffic that is moving too slowly


If you remember, we live in a suburb of Washington, D.C.  Gee, do you think we ever get stuck in traffic while driving in the DC area?  Um, YES!!!!!  I’ll give you here one example of a recent traffic meltdown that was pretty extreme.  In June, we were invited to a friend’s house for an “End-of-School-Year” gathering.  I agreed to bring the boys and meet my husband there, since the party was at a house near the school where he works in Fairfax, Virginia.  The trip should have taken no more than 30 minutes, but we were traveling on a Friday afternoon, and the traffic was terrible.  We got stuck in a long line of cars at a traffic light at an intersection, and were crawling along in stop-and-go traffic, never getting to use the accelerator.  SB just couldn’t handle it.  Every time I put my foot on the break, he screamed!  And boy, that kid is LOUD!  He screamed, he cried, he grabbed anything he could get his hands on and threw it, or used it to beat on the window with all of his might, and he also kicked the seat in front of him (my seat) repeatedly.  He shouted things like, “We’re NEVER going to get there!  The light is NEVER going to turn green!  We’re gonna be late!  NO NO NO NO!!!!”  At first I tried to reason with him.  “Of course the light will turn green.  It just takes 3 minutes.”  Or “Yes, we will get there.  We’re not late.  There is not a time that we have to be there.”  But it was like talking to a brick wall.  He was completely irrational.  He was also in a physical state of panic, complete with panting, sweating, and I’m certain the heart rate of a small rodent.  Then I tried the reward angle.  I turned off the CD we were listening to and said, “If you show me that you can be calm and stop screaming, I will turn the music back on.”  Strategies like this often work well with him, but he had already worked himself into such a frenzy that there was no reward I could offer that would stop this runaway train.  I considered pulling over and getting out somewhere until he calmed down, but we had been stuck in traffic for more than an hour, I just wanted to GET THERE, and prolonging this already painful trip seemed like worse torture to me than waterboarding.  In the middle of all of this, AB began to cry and complain that his tummy hurt.  He may have actually had a stomach ache, or he may have just been tired of his brother getting all of my attention.  Who knows?  At some point, my frayed nerves finally snapped.  It was not my best parenting moment, but I did the only thing left I could think to do.  I turned up the radio REALLY loud so that I couldn’t hear the screaming anymore.   Seventy-five minutes after we had left our house, we arrived at the party.  SB had been screaming for more than 60 of those minutes.  I stepped out of the car, leaving my children inside.  (This caused the screaming to escalate, of course.)  Knowing that my husband had already arrived at the party, I used my cell phone to call him on his cell phone.  I said, “Come out here and get your children before I hurt them.”  And he did.  All I could say to him in that moment was, “I need to be away from them right now,” and I took off down the street on foot.  I had never been to this neighborhood before and had no idea where I was going, but I knew that I needed to calm down myself, and walking seemed like a good idea.  Before long I found a park, lay down on a bench, and closed my eyes.  I’d probably still be there resting on that bench, but eventually I had to go to the bathroom.  So I walked back to the house, and found my children inside, playing happily with the toys that belonged to that family’s son.   The meltdowns are huge, but the recovery time is, thankfully, pretty short.

Until six or so months ago, my husband and I were able to prevent most of SB’s meltdowns by simply planning ahead.  As I mentioned earlier, we knew to never fix a toy or search for a missing piece to a toy while SB was watching.  When preparing to watch a movie, we did our best to set up the DVD player ahead of time when the boys were playing in another room, get through all the menus and commercials, start the movie, press pause, and THEN tell the kids it was time to come and watch.  We usually tell babysitters to do this with DVDs and also with the Wii, or we simply suggest that the sitter avoid those activities altogether.  I am a pretty organized person, and I like to plan everything in my day.  SB likes this, too.  (Maybe there’s a little bit of Spectrum in me as well!)  So it isn’t hard for me to plan out his day, letting him know what is going to happen at what time, and what he should expect.  (For more on this, see “Using rigidity to my advantage.”)  But as I’m sure you know, life doesn’t always go the way you expect.  Things can happen that are out of anyone’s control, and can derail the best laid plans.  And because I have tried my best to make his day go the way he expects, I now realize that I have actually helped to create this monster.  At this point, the meltdowns have become more and more frequent, and the list of things that cause the meltdowns is growing longer each day.

My parenting focus needs to shift.  Preventing meltdowns is no longer my priority.  The most important thing that I need to do right now is to teach SB the skills to be flexible and stay calm when things don’t go the way he expected or take longer than he expected. 

The last two things on the above list, traffic and red lights, have been the most frustrating for my husband and me, and are the main reasons that we decided to get our ABA Therapist involved in this problem.  We described his behavior to her, and right away we started to discuss a reward system.  For example, “If you can get calm and stay calm during a traffic jam, you can play with this preferred toy.”  But then she decided she should see the behavior first hand before coming up with a strategy.  So one recent summer morning, our incredibly dedicated therapist got into the car with Charlie, SB, and AB, and they went out in search of a traffic jam.  They didn’t find one.  (I find this kind of annoying and pretty ironic.  I come across traffic jams in northern Virginia all of the time, and I NEVER seek them out on purpose!)  So Charlie decided to pull into a parking lot and pretended to have trouble parking the car, taking at least 10 passes at a parking spot.  That did the trick!  SB showed off a good, solid meltdown for our therapist there in the car, very similar to the one he had on the way to the party back in June.  (AB just sat next to SB in the back seat the entire time, hugging his stuffed Cookie Monster and looking as cool as a cucumber.)  After witnessing the meltdown, our therapist concluded that a reward system is not going to work to solve this problem when his panic is so severe.  He’s not really misbehaving, he’s truly, physically terrified that the light is never going to turn green, we’ll never get in the parking space, the movie will never start, etc.  (I believe this is also why we have so much trauma with haircuts, doctor visits, and dentist visits.  It’s not simply bad behavior – it’s sheer terror.  But I digress.)

So our therapist’s new plan is to frequently expose him to these situations that make him panic, and teach him the coping skills that he needs to deal with them.  She will start in a very systematic way in his therapy sessions, and hopefully he will learn to apply these coping skills to his everyday life.  It almost seems cruel to artificially create these scenarios that we know are going to cause him irrational stress.  But I understand that it’s for his own good to learn how to cope.  I’ll describe the details of the plan in a later post, and give updates on how it’s working out.  But for now:

To be continued…

6 thoughts on “Panic! Terror! Meltdown!

  1. I remember how much he hated when the announcements at school didn’t work correctly…but the more it happened (thanks technology!) the more it delayed the time he truly melted down so much that he couldn’t recover 🙂

    1. I know you saw this behavior a lot, Ms. Pendlebury! And we think it’s getting worse and worse over time. Time for KD to create a plan of action! She always has the right ideas. Thanks for reading!

  2. As the mother, wife and sister of people with OCD I 110% endorse your therapist’s use of systematic exposure to stressful situations in order to practice coping skills. It’s often the only thing and the BEST way to see progress! Best of luck! And even on days when you want to run away- and maybe even make a quick dash- you are still the best mother ever! Not just the best mother to SB and AB but hands-down all-around awesome. Just sayin’.

  3. Hey Girl,
    You have handled your entire life these years with grace and love. To say you and your family are an inspiration is not even close to the words needed. Love you and respect everything that has been achieved and is being reached for.
    Your very appreciative and forever fan,

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