Troubleshooting my highly sensitive child’s meltdowns

We’re going on week three of emotional upheaval again. I thought my middle daughter was starting to improve with her emotional self-regulation, but we’ve hit a major setback. For the longest time, she was emotionally resilient, cooperative, happy. She was talking at school. She seemed like she was outgrowing the need to melt down. Life at home was relatively uneventful and dare I say, peaceful.

In my former life of biotechnology, I was skilled in troubleshooting expensive laboratory equipment, like the capillary electrophoresis units we had. I had taken copious notes when we learned how to use the instrument, and had the manual for reference when things went wrong. I was able to discuss problems with the service department at the company. I look forward to making things right again.

Everything is different when you have a child with problems to figure out. There’s no manual, there’s no help desk, no serviceperson to come out and help you figure things out and there’s no warranty in case things really break down. There’s nothing rational about a child’s meltdown’s except to say they serve a purpose – to tell you when things are out of control, to tell you that they need help.

Ever since Easter, my anxious, hypersensitive daughter has had a return of extreme meltdowns again. Not violent ones, but smaller bouts of irritability and upset and bigger episodes with wailing, tears, intense hurt, and in some cases, she gets so “locked in” to the meltdowns that she looks like she’s having not just an emotional meltdown, but a real physical reaction too. She gets stuck and can’t get unstuck; instead, she unravels and becomes almost hysterical at times. Her little body gets wracked by these episodes, she looks like she’ll go into a seizure (she doesn’t it’s just the closest analogy). She sobs as if someone died and the grief is unbearable, so great is her despair. It’s usually seemingly over the smallest things. I know it’s probably a culmination of events that finally reached critical mass.

She had small meltdowns through the course of the day, and a huge one last night when she wanted to fall asleep with both her dad and I, but she didn’t want to share us with her younger sister. I usually lay with them in my bed until they fall asleep, then we move them to their own beds. She didn’t even want me to touch her, but scooted down so I couldn’t reach her. She cried herself to sleep beside me. Even after she fell asleep, her breathing was shaky and she took awhile to settle into deep sleep.

What possibly precipitated it:

  • Not enough rest – in and out of the house all day because it was beautiful. It was windy though.
  • Emotional stress when neighbor kid she’s not that familiar with came by with a new friend. Dd2 came inside and told me neighbor boy was over and she didn’t know him that well. He later took her basketball, and she was upset, but didn’t say anything (he didn’t take it out of her hands or anything, it was on the ground, but dd wasn’t finished playing with it).
  • Didn’t eat well around lunchtime – ate decent at breakfast but only 1/2 her pb and j sandwich at lunch and nothing else, ate well at dinner.
  • Ate too much sugar – neighbor woman across street brought the girls over ice cream cones, then about two hours later we celebrated dh’s birthday with cake. My daughter was actually able to say out loud “thank you” to the neighbor (hurray for small gains, right?).
  • Favorite grandma and aunt came by to help us celebrate daddy’s birthday and dd2 tends to get overexcitable around them.
  • No nap – usually when outside or overexcitable, she falls asleep on the couch
  • Bedtime too late – 9 pm instead of 8-8:30.

She was hypersensitive all day long. It culminated last night in the meltdown. She laid in bed, wiggled down away from me because she didn’t want me to touch her (that’s unusual) and sobbed herself to sleep.

My thoughts –

  • regulate her diet better – I’m suspecting reactive hypoglycemia – and don’t let it slip.
  • schedule a rest period in the afternoon and hope she naps
  • look into getting her in for a full blown SPD eval
  • revisit my own advice and not let us get too busy to do what was working – we are paying for it now
  • family therapy (because this is hard on everyone. My husband and I find ourselves on edge being around her when she’s irritable and unhappy and feel helpless when she unravels into despair. ).

Sigh. I wish someone could tell me  even though this is rough now, her emotional nature will level off and she’ll be able to channel these energies into something more productive instead of wasting the energies on meltdowns.

I’m linking to an article from SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) about asynchronous development and sensory integration intervention in the gifted and talented population. I have to make a decision whether or not I’m going to pursue costly SPD OT. I’m also reading Sensational Kids by Lucy Jane Miller in the hopes I can figure out if my daughter’s issues arise from a sensory processing disorder. From the best I can tell, dd has some sensory modulation issues and this could explain her lack of resiliency. Rest and regular meals play a big factor too in her ability to cope.

I almost dread her coming home from preschool today because I never know what mood she is in and she may have residual issues from yesterday. I fully expect to have some issues, but I hope I can get them headed off at the pass.

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7 Responses to Troubleshooting my highly sensitive child’s meltdowns

  1. HeatherB says:

    I absolutely love this analogy:

    “Everything is different when you have a child with problems to figure out. There’s no manual, there’s no help desk, no serviceperson to come out and help you figure things out and there’s no warranty in case things really break down. There’s nothing rational about a child’s meltdown’s except to say they serve a purpose – to tell you when things are out of control, to tell you that they need help.”

    I don’t have much in the way of advice, other than to say that (as you know), you’re definitely not alone! You’re doing a wonderful job troubleshooting for her, and I believe that, in time, you’ll uncover the answers you need.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Thanks Heather. It’s one step forward, two back at times. Yesterday went a little better…she didn’t meltdown until after dinner time. I kept her pretty well fed and we had a low key day, watching a little tv and playing some games because it was too windy out to do anything outside.

    Today is a busier day for her, and I hope things will go all right. I’m reading Sensational Kids and hopefully can glean some information from that. They did say that sometimes certain activities can get the child’s mind off of the issue at hand and onto something else long enough to stop the upset. We’ll try a few things and see how that goes.

  3. Cathy says:

    My little boy, who is now making excellent progress with his selective mutism, sometimes has these “meltdowns” which really require a lot of patience on my part. I believe that it is less caused by fatigue and moreso due to frustration about not being able to express himself. (He does rest/plays quietly during his little brother’s nap and I put him to bed early.)

    A child psychologist who is doing her doctorate in selective mutism in immigrant children did meet him once and believes he is gifted. The large gap between what he understands and what he can express creates a lot of frustration according to her. She advised us to formulate his sentences for him if he is unable to, to give him the words he is looking for.

    My son has been seeing an art therapist every week and I think it is really helpful. He has so much to say to her, he needs this release with someone who is not a family member. His afterschool help session in language really helps him out too. (We live in France.) And so does outdoor play.

    When he does have these meltdowns, which are fortunately rare, I put him in his room if he seems violent, and I try to stay calm. I also remind myself not to ignore his little brother, or myself.

    Take care,
    Cathy

  4. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Thanks Cathy – it’s always helpful to know we aren’t alone in dealing with intense emotions.

    My daughter is quite articulate, but usually not when she’s flooded with emotion. Then she vocalizes a lot of her upset or grunts her anger at times – though usually not angry so much as she disintegrates into a puddle of wails and tears.

    I have been trying to get her into bed earlier though, and it helped somewhat yesterday. Today she stayed home from school, so it’s been a day of rest a bit.

  5. Ken says:

    Reactive hypoglycemia could definitely be the cause. My ten year old gifted son has reactive hypoglycemia, and if he doesn’t stick to his diet he has meltdowns. The GOOD news though is that if he eats right…no sugar, low GI foods, he’s fine–like an angel! You might be interested in reading this article: http://www.reactivehypoglycemia.info/articles/reactive-hypoglycemia-in-highly-gifted-children/
    Steph

  6. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Steph – thanks for linking me to your article. I always love to hear when others make this discovery and how they manage to help their children.

    I’m going to add it to my blogroll to hopefully help others!

    Thanks and

    Best Wishes.

  7. For us, the turning point came when my son took ownership of his moods. We’ve had many discussions about sleep, foods, and breathing exercises. We’ve had lengthy discussions (initiated by my son) about how ultimately HE needs to take responsibility for his reactions and understand that he has little control of others. We discuss what works, what doesn’t and that tomorrow is a new day. Best of luck!

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