Sunday, 12 January 2014

Meltdowns vs Panic Attacks

I'm a member of a few different Facebook groups for adoptive parents, and parents of children with attachment issues. I just saw a post where someone asked about medication for children who have panic attacks, and it made me wonder if I should look at Mini's meltdowns differently, and if I do that, will it help me have more empathy for him? I'm not suggesting I'll look into medication by the way...

At the moment, whilst I do understand some of the whys of Mini having these meltdowns, in the heat of the moment, when I'm trying to calm him, hold him, prevent him from hurting himself or others, it's pretty easy to just be frustrated and cross about them - and that's just me, of course he's feeling pretty shitty himself! As much as I try to remain calm, empathic, understanding and therapeutic, when it comes to the crunch, sometimes I do shout or get cross. I think most of the adoptive parents I'm in touch with do too, and we're all pretty good at beating ourselves up about it afterwards. No-one ever said therapeutic parenting was going to be easy.

But, in reality, when I sit back and reflect upon it all, he's not doing these things to intentionally hurt us, it's not personal and I know that.
When I say he has meltdowns, I think the easiest way to explain it is by saying it's a bit like a toddler tantrum but ramped up. Limbs flail, his body is thrown around the space, his head bobs in your direction, feet get stomped and fists fly, out comes a torrent of noise - insults, screams, cries, whines, rages, shouts, hisses, and strange animal noises that seem to come from deep within. Objects get thrown, hands fly to cover his face in shame, he'll run and hide or bury his head as far into the sofa as he can, comfort and physical touch are rejected, calming words are shouted over and make no difference.
Think about a toddler doing all this, but with the strength, weight and size of a 7 year old, who has a much more developed vocabulary, and doesn't tire as quickly as a toddler so can maintain this for several hours. This 7 year old has also worked out which buttons to press for a reaction, much better than a toddler. And this tantrum is not over you saying no to a biscuit (although sometimes it is!), often it's for a reason unknown to you or the 7 year old.

We have many ways to 'handle' these episodes, depending on the reason (if known) for it happening, sometimes with success and sometimes we have to just ride it out.

Mostly these happen because Mini is stressed about something - be it a birthday party (and the worries about being good, being in a different place, lots of people around, being able to find the toilet), or perhaps he's done something that he knows we won't like (and is worried he'll get told off, worried we'll reject him, worried we won't like him anymore), something new (where he won't know what's safe, won't know the people, won't know the rules or expectations). And sometimes Mini doesn't know what he's stressed about, but a feeling has been triggered within.
As adults when we have these worries, we can panic. If we have them often and lots at a time, they can cause us to have panic attacks. So it that what Mini's having then? I'm not suggesting they're all panic attacks, sometimes it's defiance, sometimes he doesn't like what he's been told or asked, sometimes it's normal 7 year old behaviour, but most of the time it's more than that.

These worries, and there are so many more that I haven't written about, take over Mini's life to an extent. We try to take them away or make them not exist in the first place. We have routines so Mini doesn't have to worry about things getting done or in what order. But still, he is hyper vigilant about things happening, and we see him physically flap when something's worrying him. We use that great book 'The huge bag of worries' and several Margot Sunderland books too, but still...

Anyway, what I think I'm trying to say is that a panic attack sounds like something I can identify with a lot more, and I think therefore that I can empathise with it a lot more too.  Hopefully thinking slightly differently will help me help Mini during these times. I hope I can accept that he feels panicky, without looking too hard at why he feels that way.


  1. You know, that's interesting. OB is only three, so most of his meltdowns are because he is three, some are because he isn't getting his way etc, All normal stuff. But it is beginning to dawn on me that he is perhaps hyper-vigilant (lots of reasons - won't clog your comments space up with it all), as well as very keen on having control, so I'm intrigued by the possibility that some (a very small number) of his episodes could be more akin to panic attacks than anything else. Thanks for posting this - very helpful.

  2. I see Jonathan in much the same way; sometimes his meltdowns have an obvious cause and sometimes it's a complete mystery (and Suddenly Mummy, I find Jonathan VERY hyper-vigilant and VERY controlling too, I think a common trait in kids who have experienced trauma or neglect). I've never thought of in a way of a panic attack. Interesting how just using different language can change our approach to a situation.

    There is a book that's an activity book for kids to work through called 'When my worries get too big' by Kari Dunn Buron. We've used several of the ideas and activities with varying degrees of success with kids at work.

    Sorry Mini's party had to be canceled; I hope he enjoyed his amazing cake though!

  3. I've been reading recently about PDA - Patholgicial Demand Avoidance - and in the FB group it's the first time I've seen a meltdown referred to as a panic attack. Thinking about most of Missy's meltdowns, I can see that, yes, she probably is panicking, at the very least very anxious - either about the current issue or a deeper issue that is worrying her. It's really made me think about her meltdowns in a different way because having had a few panic attacks myself in the last year, I know they are terrifying