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When It's Not Just a Typical Toddler Meltdown

Photograph by Twenty20

Driving away from the park, I was an emotional mess. With tears pouring down my face, I glanced in my rearview mirror to see my son, who was equally, if not more, upset. I hated myself for putting him through that.

Feeling uncharacteristically spontaneous, the kids and I ventured to a new park. Once we arrived, I immediately regretted the decision. I should’ve known better when the descriptors "new" and "different" were associated with this adventure.

The feeling of anxiety overcame my body upon noticing the unusually large crowd of people. Parents and nannies were scattered throughout the playground, while the kids ran around like lunatics. Joggers, runners and fitness enthusiasts swarmed the surroundings. The deafening noise of screams, shrieks and laughter echoed throughout the park. Worst of all, I spotted the most excessive assortment of playground equipment that seemed to go on for days.

It was horrible.

You’re probably thinking, What’s wrong with this situation? This park has all the characteristics of a dream playground. And you may be right. But for my son, this is a recipe for disaster.

Against my better judgment, we pressed on. As soon as my van’s doors slid open, my boys were released into the unknown wild, filled with excitement and wonder as they eagerly checked out their new surroundings. A minute or two passed before I noticed the all-too-familiar look on my eldest son’s face. Coupled with his behavior, it was obvious he was overwhelmed and becoming overstimulated.

The adrenaline wasn’t only coursing through his veins but spilled out of him as he ran back and forth between any and every equipment he could get his hands on. His body wouldn't allow him to sit still or focus long enough to play with anything in the traditional sense, but rather a brief instant to give it a minor inspection before he moved onto the next. You would've thought he recently consumed an entire tub of frosting because he was literally bouncing off the walls, stairs, ladders and anything else in this path.

The environment was simply too much for him to handle. It was new and unfamiliar.

Too many people.

Too much noise.

Too much of everything.

He no longer had control over his body, behavior or emotions—complete impulse had taken over. Thinking, judgment and reasoning had left altogether and regardless of how hard I tried to reach him, he was gone. I couldn't even get his attention to look me in the eyes at that point.

Then it happened.

Too much stimulation, mixed with an unpredictable, new environment, sent him spinning into a complete meltdown. Based on his reaction, you would've thought he was in physical pain and I'm not entirely convinced he wasn't. Situations like that are so unbelievably difficult for him to process and handle; they cause him severe discomfort. His intense yelling, screaming and crying weighed him down until he fell on the ground in a fit of anger.

On the surface, it appeared he’d become upset over the speed at which a merry-go-round was being spun or how other children’s actions were interfering with his play. Of course, this wasn't the root cause for his behavior—it only masked the true underlying issue: he was in full sensory overload and was completely overwhelmed.

Moments like these remind me why it’s easier to stay in our bubble and live in a safe zone where no one can shame us with their judgment.

I already knew trying to calm him down would be pointless, but I attempted anyway because doing nothing felt worse. His outburst had now transformed into an explosion of hits, kicks and pushes until he broke free, fleeing the scene. I called out for my son, but he didn't respond or alter his course. He wasn't ignoring me, he simply couldn't be reached.

Throughout all of this, I could feel the eyes of nearby parents burning holes in us while children in close proximity were asking what’s wrong with my son. The scene must’ve been pretty intense, if they couldn’t even attempt the "I'm pretending not to look but am still watching out of the corner of my eye" stare.

They were probably thinking he was having a toddler tantrum in epic proportions. But they were wrong.

Tantrums are behavioral-based—possibly from a child not getting his way or desperate for attention. That is not my son. My son’s meltdown was the result of an attack on his nervous system, an inability to cope with this new sensory-filled environment and becoming overwhelmed with too stimulus. He has difficulty with transitions and a change in routine. To top it off, he suffers from a language delay and has a hard time communicating, which only adds to his frustrations.

There was no bringing him back to his normal self until he was removed from the situation to an environment without excessive stimulus, where his mind and body could calm down. This is the only remedy that has ever worked.

Even after the incident had long passed, the damage has been done. Sometimes an experience like that will deplete him of all his energy, leaving him completely exhausted and drained—which he won’t recover from for the rest of the day.

Moments like that remind me why it’s easier to stay in our bubble and live in a safe zone where no one can shame us with their judgment. I’m reminded there’s validity to my hesitancy and anxiety, when our family experiences new situations filled with unexpectedness and unfamiliarity. Most of all, I’m reminded of the unique challenges my son constantly faces and our family must navigate through on a daily basis.

The environments we choose to exist in are those filled with predictability and structure. My son has a schedule and routine he can depend on. This is our safe place. In fact, my husband and I have done such an outstanding job orchestrating and tailoring our lives to best meet the needs of my son, we often forget the struggles he faces.

But avoidance isn’t the answer either. It’s extremely difficult to maintain a delicate balance of protecting him from overwhelming situations and exposing him to settings that are beyond challenging for him to process.

Although I know we can’t hide out from the world, sometimes I’m guilty of avoiding certain situations to prevent him the pain. Sometimes I don’t have it in me to put my son through an excruciating experience. I don’t have it in me to watch him break down crying in pain not understanding why this world is so mean to him. I don’t have it in me to steal the smiles and laughter away from my happy, sweet boy. What mom would want to take that away from their child? And yet, sometimes I need to because we can’t live isolated forever. And in those moments, my heart breaks for my son.

The world is loud, bright and definitely full of change and unpredictability. My job is to guide and prepare him for potentially overwhelming, sensory-filled situations by giving him the necessary tools to manage without me always by his side. It’s important to teach him to identify triggers while helping him to navigate through these meltdowns.

We are still learning. Needless to say, it’s a process that we continue to work through, every single moment of every single day. One day, I know we'll get there.

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