The word "meltdown" has become a commonly batted about term in the parenting world, yet with widely divergent meanings. A meltdown can be anything from a very loud whine at an inopportune moment to a screeching ball of violent nerves quivering on the floor. Things that other parents consider to be "meltdowns" I don't even hear anymore- or more precisely, I see the causes quicker, and thus can move to diffuse the situation rather than just assuming the kid is a freak and escalating it.
Now, I can't say that I am some master of diffusion. Meltdowns, by their nature, tend to escalate. If we as parents think meltdowns are scary and nerve-wracking, try having one. But what most people label as "meltdown" isn't even close to what I would consider one. Disappointed children who pout when they don't get their way aren't melting down. A tired child who starts to cry when you want to do just one more errand is not melting down. A child throwing a little temper tantrum over not getting the latest Transformer toy is (usually) not melting down.
For our house, "melt down" is a term that is reserved for a situation that involves a great deal of screaming. They are almost always connected with frustration. One is not "melting down" until one is no longer functional. A Level One meltdown is when a frustrated child gets into my face and empties his lungs (sorry, all boys here), so that he is unable to complete the current task. Nothing elseis happening, just the screaming, that very loud alarm of "I cannot do this right now, I don't know why." A Level 10 involves injury to all and sundry within crashing distance of the child's body. This is the very loud alarm of "I cannot deal with existance as it is right now, leave me alone." All meltdowns require a great deal of patience. The child cannot seem to end them himself; there are a whole bag of methods to help de-escalate and calm the child, and you may need every single one to restore calm enough for the child to re-engage their own coping and equilibrium mechanisms.
This time last year, we were still in almost-daily meltdown, usually Levels 1-3. Summer has always been particularly bad since he started school. We never had them before he started school, because we just adjusted the whole world to him without even thinking much about it. Sensory overload was rare, and when Joey did make a peep, we jumped. I could take him almost anywhere when he was a baby. Joey tended to be under-sensitive rather than over-sensitive. HIgh pain tolerance. Hates dark rooms, loves super-bright ones. That sort of thing. Also, the lack of communication skills meant that I often understood and adjusted to/for him, but he really couldn't tell people around him what was going on. Anyway, summer is bad news for the ears and the nerves. The wild changes of routine, the long daylight, the heat... all big no-nos for sanity around here. We've mostly headed off the worst of it this summer by having him in programs, getting him into routines, and now with school. He's stayed pretty focused and been able to really enjoy activities and be able to talk about what is going on around him. Celebration times! I need more champagne. :) There are still times he melts down, but for the most part, I can track what the antecedents were, and can see them coming, so can brace for intervention.
Joey had a Level 8 today. I am in the middle of tracking down what exacly happened. I mean, I can tell you the immediate trigger, and I've tracked down a good many of the small events that fed into the situation, but bigger meltdowns can sometimes be tricky, and are almost always a shock. Was this just an accumulation of small irritants, or did something happen that I need to know, say, at school? Did all the shifts and changes just overwhelm him, or was there a sensory issue with the heat that took him over an edge, or is there a bigger problem that needs to be addressed? My jaw would like to know.
Fortunately, this occured at the therapists' office. For one, that meant the moms who were there were interested in helping, and understood what was going on. None of them had ever seen Joey go into meltdown before, so they were taken aback, but all the moms had kids that melt down more readily than Joey, so they knew what it was. For two, the OT could intervene immediately. Once the worst was over, we got Joey some deep pressure and other input that was calming, with the good equipment (bug hugs and big exercise balls are good things).
Now that it's over, the detective work goes into full swing. What happened? How can I help him pull out of the spiral? What did I do wrong that resulted in such explosive escalation? But this work gets easier- or at least faster- with practice. You start knowing hat questions to ask, what clues to consider, which people to talk to. You become an expert, like any other endeavor, and thus make more headway in less time. With good luck, I will find all the peices and be able to sort out the bigger picture, so that I can intervene and help before the child goes into overload and explodes.