Meltdowns – what I’m doing when you think I’m doing nothing – by Kitty Black

Connecting to your child requires constant work. Not all of that work is visible to other people. But it’s the invisible stuff, the deep down acceptance and tolerance of your maniac child that truly matters.

This is usually how the judgment from others goes. You’re out, in public, doing wondrous public things with your beloved cherubs. You have an exchange with your partner, chatting merrily. You may even get to finish a sentence. But then there’s a cry and you see your child in a puddle on the ground. You go over and you parent your child the best way you know how. You kneel down beside her, this grubby tear-stained cherub whose chest is doing those big gulping breaths and you hold her as she processes the trauma of sharing the slide. And then some complete wanker goes ‘Her kid won’t share the slide and she’s not even doing anything about it!’

Keyhole Judging – (you know if it has a name then it’s clearly a thing). You see a snapshot of someone’s life and draw wild conclusions, generally negative. For example, my child won’t share the slide so I may as well buy her first switchblade now. She can get menacing boots for Christmas.

Keyhole judging very much upsets me.

Hey bystanders! It is not that I’m doing nothing, it’s that you are seeing nothing!

If you want to correctly label the exchange it goes like this ‘So, she responded to her child with respect, and listened to her emotions and point of view and considered the context and any triggers that were around and she knew that she couldn’t listen at that point in time so she stayed close to her and connected in a meaningful way that didn’t send her into flight or fight. That Bitch!!’

I am so tired of having ‘peaceful parenting’ referred to as ‘doing nothing’ There is an insane amount of energy and effort expended in taking the road less travelled with your kid. The one that requires you to constantly label emotions and negotiate, and say shit like ‘It’s ok to be sad’ and ‘I can hear how upset you are’ as you are loving your child through their insistence that a broken cookie is the end of physics, geometry and the world as we know it.

My son is Autistic. This is not news. Sometimes it creates news because he’s also bloody hilarious, but I digress. We have been shopping with him (an excursion which I am one hundred percent positive has led to child puddled on floor scenario’s for every parent ever). We bought him an ice-cream. It was the wrong one. He wanted the orange one. He dropped to the ground like a goddamn stone, wrong ice-cream discarded and face crumpled like an accordion. He crawled into a corner of the shopping centre and curled up like a kitten. A sad, sweaty, wronged kitten. I sat down beside him.

People in shopping centres have opinions. They really do. A stranger saw the sad Boy and the melting ice-cream and inquired as to what was going on. ‘Wrong ice cream!’ I replied with a shrug. ‘And you’re letting him get away with it? You’re doing nothing?’

Fuck off I’m doing nothing, I’m managing my own emotions and modelling fucking emotional development. I’m filtering the looks from other people and constructing a social story in my head. I’m judging if it’s the right time to put a hand on my son’s back because it’s sometimes comforting and sometimes not, I’m making sure I’m beside him instead of in front of him because that can be confronting. I’m giving rage face to anyone that looks like they might intervene and fuck it all up and I’m getting the occasional you bloody well rock glance from other people who know exactly how much work goes into doing nothing. I’m providing a safe space, physically and emotionally for a sad boy and I’m doing it while sitting on the cold ground someone has probably walked on with poo shoes. I’m modulating my tone and I’m choosing my words carefully, I’m offering him a way in instead of shutting him out. I’m matching my breathing to his to help him slow shuddering breaths into deep peaceful ones. I’m looking for exits and figuring out the best way to present moving to a scared child who was doing excellently well in dealing with the lights, noise, movement and confusion of a busy shopping centre and who unfortunately was given the wrong ice cream.

There is no amount of tough love that can convince a child whose body and brain is telling him he’s in danger, that he is not in danger (Nason, 2016). What is this obsession with doing something? Sometimes nothing is magic. Sometimes it’s required. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can actually do. I have broken previously and bowed down to pressure to pick up an overwhelmed child and move them, or yelled at them when what I really wanted to do was crouch down beside him and say ‘let me know when you’re ready.’ The result is inevitably worse. Plus it was really only done to demonstrate to onlookers that I’m controlling my child, the worst parenting choice I can make. Doing nothing will never be a bad choice, even if you just use that time to sit quietly with your child and calm your own mind while you figure out what to do next. I have sat on shopping centre floors. I have held whispered conversations underneath cinema seats. I have described the action in a circus to a child hunched over in my lap who desperately wanted to see it, but couldn’t bear to watch it. I have climbed trees and stayed in parked cars. I have sat on steps outside classrooms and hidden in beanbags at family gatherings.

I DO NOT regret a single second of this.

I am trying to raise people who will not be like those bystanders, or other mothers who whisper when I whisk my child away to quietly talk about ‘appropriate behaviour’ instead of the public flagellation they consider their due. I am no longer interested in pandering to the feelings of bystanders when my children, my (occasionally) angelic children are crying their hearts out. This is the long haul, when we accept all emotions and actually process them then the work eventually gets less. Labelling and accepting provides an extra link between feeling and doing, that link is thinking (Lieberman et al., 2007). It stops knee jerk reactions and helps us consider context and consequences when making decisions (Lieberman, Inagaki, Tabibnia & Crockett, 2011). It helps us know why we do things, and prevents scenarios like looking around at the broken dishes and thinking ‘crap, I actually liked that set.’

With each practiced time, doing nothing during a meltdown gets easier. The fear is less, the trust is more. The doing nothing leaves space for so many other things to happen. More important things than demonstrating control over a child. So if you see a parent doing nothing with their child, just know how much effort that nothing is taking up. I guarantee it’s more valuable and worthwhile in the long term than doing something.

References (oh hush I know you love them).

Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S., Pfeifer, J. H., Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18, 421-428.

Lieberman, M. D., Inagaki, T. K., Tabibnia, G., & Crockett, M. J. (2011). Subjective responses to emotional stimuli during labeling, reappraisal, and distraction. Emotion, 3, 468-480.

Nason, B. (2016). Autism Discussion Page: Don’t Punish Meltdowns! Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/autismdiscussionpage/?fref=ts

Linking up with The Annoyed Thyroid for Down the Rabbit Hole hereMeltdon

 

This is a guest post by Kitty Black,Blogger. Children’s Book Writer. Maker of Cakes with Vegetables in them. Owner of several shiny degrees for No Apparent Reason. Neurodivergent Family. Visit Kitty’s blog Playing With Fireworks and head over and ‘like’ her funny, honest Facebook page 

15 Comments

  1. rebecca Says Reply

    oh! So so wonderful to hear another parent talk about this road that i’m trying to travel on. It certainly is not easy. One thing i find really difficult is the expectations on my children’s behavior not just from strangers, but from my parents and my husbands parents. They expect that we should have much more ‘control’ than we do. Sometimes i wonder if people think that peaceful parenting is all fine, as long as it still results in a unobtrusive, quiet, compliant and conforming child. Instead I’ve ended up with a child who is at times an incredibly unruly, untidy, dirty, screaming, emotional mess, who often tries to hurt his sister (yet is on occasion able to genuinely share because that’s never been forced). So that looks like nothing to be proud of, because it’s expected that kids should be able to share. And so if they ignore how marvelous it is, to know how to give because you want to give, then all they would see is my unruly, untidy, dirty screaming emotional mess!

  2. Ainslie Says Reply

    Neuro typical children don’t have ‘meltdowns’, they have tantrums. They are extraordinarily different things to a meltdown.

    • Kim Says Reply

      This. An autistic child is far different than one who is given free reign to rule the roost and cuckhold their parents into giving into them.

    • Rachelle Says Reply

      Thanks so much for this. My Son has meltdowns, emotional outbursts and tantrums. There really is a difference. I slipped into punishment and allowing my anger rule my response to him out of fear of other people’s judgments of how he behaves. He has been a real challenge to parent and a huge reflection on my lack of parenting tools. I listened to the advice about forcing and controlling my child and saw his behavior worsen and his bond to me destroyed to the point that this sensitive little boy has told me that I am no longer in his family anymore. He has become increasingly more violent towards his little sister. This last month I have renewed my decision to parent him more positively and to model to him the behaviors I wish to see. I will be more understanding when he has a meltdown or an emotional outburst. I will model the behavior I wish for him to develop in learning to cope with his big emotions, irrational anxieties and fears. I will communicate with him how I deal with those and apologize when I forget to be mindful and understanding to him

  3. annie Says Reply

    what is worth doing and what is worth having? it is worth doing nothing and having a rest. Leunig. such a beautiful wise man. all power to you and your love of your child. and thankyou

  4. Marie Says Reply

    Thank you for your article and for teaching me the term “keyhole judging”. You are so right that far too many people are only too willing to draw wild and inappropriate conclusions based on watching a 2 second interaction between a parent and child. Let’s face it: every parent-child relationship is unique and we all need to give each other space and support as we figure it out for ourselves and our own children.

  5. Lauren Says Reply

    I have always been appalled by the parent who thumps their child, even long before I had a child. I’ve always had respect for a parent who is trying to help their child navigate their emotions. We all have bad days where we don’t get it right (and then are our own worst critic), but if we can’t model management of emotions for our kids, who will? Sounds like you do a phenomenal job!

  6. Meg Says Reply

    Oh I’m so grateful to read this. I identify with this so very much!! I’ve been there many times, with parents judging my screaming kid, when he needs me to just be there, to be quiet, to connect, to validate his emotions, to make him feel heard and not pressured to stop screaming (which is so hard for me, because I, too, want him to stop screaming). I feel like parents roll their eyes at me on the playground when my kid screams and swings his fists at me, and I just keep my voice calm and measured, look at him, talk him through it. But that’s what needs doing. I’m also grateful to learn the term keyhole judging, that’s so fitting a term. And I also love what you said about doing ‘nothing’ being the most important thing. It can be true for adults ,too – when I had my miscarriage, the friend who gave the most support was the one who offered to just sit with me, and said ‘that sucks.’ No words of “well soon you can….” or “Well these things happen for a reason,” or whatever that so many others were tossing my way. Nothing was where it was quiet enough to heal my heart. And I think that’s so true for kids, too.

  7. Andra Says Reply

    Thank you! For both article and references!!!

    🙂 <3

  8. Jessica Says Reply

    Wonderful post! My daughter is about to turn 2, I’m seeing the first of her looking for and testing boundaries. At times she’ll push me away when I try to sit near her, or stroke her back during a meltdown. At first, this hurt, but I tell myself, don’t take it personal, just be there for her. I’ve yet to have to encounter the looks and whispers of onlookers, I know that day’s coming though. I hope that my own growth and acceptance of doing what I know is right even when surrounded by others who disagree comes through for me. Thank you for posting this!

  9. Melinda Says Reply

    Pinky- THANK YOU for putting into words what I have been trying to now for quite some time. Recently, I went to a seminar called “Transforming the Intense Child”. It was *life changing* for me, and the type of parenting feels so right for my child and I. It’s all about connection and positive reinforcement. That being said, I know the judging looks. The best part is, I don’t care anymore. I know what is best for my child, and it HAS transformed him. And I can tell that you don’t care what those people are thinking, either. Your child’s welfare is what’s most important. LOVE IT!

  10. Estelle Says Reply

    Just a word from an “outlooker”…(and mum as well):
    Just don’t pay attention to people looking I would say, and don’t judge them too fast too. They might not be judging themselves!
    I’ve had once a quite angry reaction from a mum who was on the floor with her kid. I wasn’t judging, just looking 2s for what was happening, in case some help was really needed (is the kid moving? does he seem ok? ah, he’s just crying – non of my buisiness then).
    Please keep that in mind too!

  11. Debe Says Reply

    Excellent ♡♡♡♡

  12. Eva Says Reply

    Hi. My sister Brigitte told me about your blog, and as I was reading about the ice-cream meltdown scenario, I was hit by a strong memory, complete with the emotions and the stabbing feeling in my heart at the time that accompanied it. I remembered what if felt like those times when I was little and I REALLY NEEDED TO GET EXACTLY THAT ONE thing I had set my heart and mind on, and it occurred to me why it was such a great tragedy when I didn’t. It was like there was a black tunnel and that thing at the end of it. And it was the RIGHT thing. The ONLY right thing, and getting it meant so much, because it was a reflection of my capabilities as a living, breathing being. If I could communicate properly what it was that I wanted and in the right way, and then do the right things to get it, then I had done something right; completed some great (at the time even ginormous) task in navigating this complex and scary world of so many unknowns. And on the other hand, when I didn’t get it right, it was a reflection of my own inability (to survive, even). It was a total failure and I was a failure, doomed to die. It was THAT bad. And the sudden epiphany of remembering the feelings and what I was thinking at the time so very clearly made me think that maybe these feelings go way back into our primal memories, where raw survival really did depend on getting things JUST RIGHT and the wrong kind of plant would kill you and not knowing which branch to hold on to could send you plummeting – and at the point in life when we are just starting to do things for ourselves and learning to exercise our own will, GETTING IT RIGHT can be such a crucial thing – especially on those days when we’re already feeling muddled and insecure, as getting it wrong awakens the whole primeval fear of the consequence of getting it wrong possibly making you dead. Or at best a failure. That is the heart-wrenching feeling I recall from those times. I was not angry at my parents in a direct way. It was mainly this abysmal feeling of having FAILED. And then everything is wrong and it’s so scary. I did lash out at my parents, too, because they just happened to be there, and they were supposed to help, right? But it was more in an abstract way and the terrible disappointment was mainly directed at myself, because I couldn’t explain it to them and get them to be the intermediary to get me the right thing. But they were more a “background presence” anyway and any disappointment there only constituted less than 10% of the overall sense of desperation and failure. So.. thanks for your blog and thanks for this epiphany. I don’t often have such clear memories of my early childhood, but this one was really strong and sudden. I also don’t know if this makes sense to other children and parents, but I now know that this is how it was with me and my reasons for becoming that screaming, anguished puddle. And that just being there and gently holding me until it passed or anything else under the heading of non-violent/attachment parenting was really the only thing that truly helped. Oh, and now I’ve just read the next sentence which goes on to examine why this is so scary for children and realize it has probably been “discovered” already, but am grateful for this direct confirmation I’ve just received. It may help me to feel more empathically what children go through at such times as opposed to “just” having read about it.

  13. Kathryn Says Reply

    I didn’t realise that kind of parenting existed. It was a very stressful article to read. I’ve not really noticed that parenting style when out. If I see a kid screaming…i’m not judging the parent. I’m thinking…thank God it’s not my child this time. It really made me wonder how effective this parenting style may be and if i should be changing things. Found this article https://www.verywell.com/what-is-permissive-parenting-2794957. Permissive parenting seems great, but the long term effects on the children are not good. I think i’ll stick to my parening style, so less stressful than that story…and my child is on the autism spectrum too.

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