I know many of us are glad to have another Fringy Halloween behind us and don’t really want to revisit the holiday for another 360 days (or in 3 days when our Fringy Kids start planning what they’re going to be for next Halloween). Bear with me, though. This story does include Halloween, but really it isn’t about Halloween at all.
Jon and I often work opposite schedules and Halloween 2016 happened to fall on a night when I was solo parenting it. I mentioned this to my friend, who immediately invited me and the 3 Fringy Kids over to eat dinner and trick or treat with them. In my ever exhausting attempt to try to foresee what will send my daughter into a tailspin, I pondered whether it’d be better to have her social censoring activated by being around other people, or to have less stimulation and go it alone. I opted to join the crowd.
About halfway through dinner I could tell KBear was getting overstimulated. About 2 blocks into trick or treating I could tell we were losing her. About 3 blocks into trick or treating she said her legs hurt. About 3 ½ blocks into trick or treating she said she wanted to go back. My 11 year old and non-stop 4 year old were nowhere near being done.
Before I even had a second to fret about what to do, my best friend comes to the rescue! I’m pretty sure Rachel was wearing a cape and there was a superhero anthem playing in the background as she leapt in, calmly asked KBear, “would you be okay going back with me? I think the baby’s had enough, too, and we can just go back and relax.” KBear slowly nodded her head and journeyed off with my friend. And my shoulders dropped, my mind eased, my boys and I carried on and stayed out as long as they wanted to.
I remember the first time KBear had a meltdown in front of Rachel. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or how my friend would respond. I heard her son ask questions and express uncertainty about what was going on. And then I heard my friend calmly explain to her son, in a non-judgmental and totally compassionate way, that KBear has some differing wiring that makes it difficult to control her body and emotions sometimes. I heard my friend help her son relate by bringing up examples when he’d felt out of sorts or overloaded. I heard my friend calmly ask what she could do, what would be helpful, and patiently sit with calmness, acceptance, and love. She occasionally asked if there was anything she could do and then refocused attention off of KBear’s meltdown by quietly entertaining the other kiddos. After the meltdown, my friend hugged me, told me I’m a good mom, validated how difficult it must be to stay patient and respond so lovingly, and reinforced that she’s here for whatever I need.
I am tearing up now as I write about it. Why? Because she was perfectly supportive. Because so many people respond differently. Family, friends, strangers will most often back away. Occasionally they’ll stare or say rude comments. Sometimes they’ll give unsolicited advice. And I get it. Most people don’t know how to respond. Most often I don’t feel like I know how to respond and I live with it every day. How can I expect other people to understand and know what to do?
I didn’t realize just how much I was missing the type of support my friend provided until she gave it to me. I know my family and friends are there and would do anything to help, but I didn’t even know what would be helpful to ask for. They regularly ask what they can do, or tell me that they don’t know what to do. And until Rachel intuitively showed me, I couldn’t put words to what I needed.
So, lets use Rachel’s beautiful examples to highlight what we, as fringy parents, would find helpful in the midst of a meltdown.
1 – Respectfully taking initiative. One of the things I appreciate most is that Rachel respects my role as the parent and follows my lead as I’m dealing with KBear, but simultaneously steps in to simply do the other things that need attention. She entertains the other kids. She continues making the snack. She provides quiet space. In the midst of dealing with a meltdown, my mind is working fast to try to address safety and emotion regulation. I cannot always think beyond the immediate risk to provide direction for all the other stuff. It is helpful when others just take the lead on those.
2 – Occasionally asking if there’s something I need. She doesn’t ask too often, which is helpful given the state of my mind as described above, but every once in a while I’ll hear a simple, “anything you need?” It reminds me that I’m not in it alone with my daughter. It gives me the opportunity to ask for something that we’d need without having to take my full attention away from my daughter.
3 – Validation. Our lives as fringy parents are vastly different from parents of neuro-typical kids. We wonder if this parenting thing is so difficult because we’re doing something wrong or if our experience is genuinely more challenging. We live in high stress. We need to simultaneously plan everything out and be prepared to have all our plans derailed as behaviors occur. To be seen. To be heard. To be validated is so incredibly healing. After a meltdown my mom once came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. It must be so hard.” Just hearing those words allows us fringy parents to feel supported and understood.
4 – Validation. No, this isn’t a typo. We need validation of the challenges, but we also need validation that we’re doing a good job. It is so easy to doubt ourselves as parents because typical parenting strategies rarely work with our fringy kids. And something that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. We can easily feel like we’re failing, like it’s our fault, like we are completely screwing our kids up. Hearing from my friend that I’m a good mom. Hearing from my family that I am patient and compassionate with my daughter. These are things I cling to on the days when my thoughts tell me otherwise.
5 – Eyes filled with compassion and acceptance. This is by far the most helpful thing. Fear, uncertainty, worry, concern, can all start to look like judgment, whether intended or not. Eyes that turn away because they don’t want to stare, can feel like avoidance, judgment, or like we’re all alone or that our muck is too much for others. Looking the meltdown square in the face, seeing the people who are in pain underneath the crazy behavior, and showing compassion and straightforward acceptance helps set my mind at ease. It helps me be able to focus entirely on my daughter and my own reactions instead of getting distracted in potential judgment. It creates an environment of love which girds me up to respond with love, which is far more effective in any meltdown situation.
And here’s the deal, it is necessary for us as fringy parents to have this. It is necessary for our own well-being to have at least one or two people who can provide these things. It is necessary to feel supported, understood, like part of a team. And sometimes we are simply blessed with people in our lives, like Rachel, who do these things naturally. More often, we need to teach people what to do. Most often, loved ones want to help, they just don’t know how. And if you take the time to teach them, to assertively ask for your own needs to be met, you just might be able to enjoy trick or treating next year, too!