What to Say and Not Say When I'm Having a Meltdown

I don’t experience meltdowns often, but when they do happen, it’s such a heightened state of emotion that the details of how I feel, what triggered it and how to recover fades with every hour after I’m in a relatively calm state. I can’t speak for everyone on the spectrum, but I can tell you how I feel about them, and I hope that in doing this, some of what I say may help someone else, especially parents of autistic kids who don’t have the ability to explain things. I’m 36, and I barely have the insight needed to advocate for what helps me recover from meltdowns.

This afternoon I had a meltdown. It was an epic one that had been building for quite some time. When it hit I was unable to identify it and stop the torrent of emotions from flowing out. What triggered it was not one thing, and with me it almost never is. I had been operating above the level of my capacity for a couple weeks now. School enrollment and appointments have devoured my days. So much paperwork and talking to people. Social engagements, and all the while keeping up with regular household stuff, had me teetering, too. I knew I was teetering, but there was not much I could do.

I used every coping skills available to me, but it was not enough. On top of the demands, a few different people in this small time frame had treated my son, Bubby, poorly. (He is not aware of the rejection, or what was said about him in two of these incidents.) Not only was I beyond sad for my big-hearted son who does not deserve this, but I was/am feeling as if I failed him in some way. This was the last straw. This took my last spoon, and it was all downhill from there. I had a meltdown, passed out from exhaustion and have been recovering for the rest of the night.

When I’m in a meltdown situation, it’s the worst, rawest, most desperate feeling in the world. I’m out of control, and my world is spinning. Sometimes I might cry, but that isn’t often. As a matter of fact, not much emotion ever registers on my face, so there is little for the other people in my presence to clue into other than my behavior.

So, what do (usually) well-intentioned people say when I’m having a meltdown situation?

“Have you tried not caring about _______?” Now this is a fair question. Usually what I’m ranting on about seems out of proportion to my emotion. It seems small to others, but in reality what I’m ranting on about is often not even what I was upset about to begin with, or it was just the last straw that set off the catastrophic firestorm inside of my head. This question feels like an attack to me in the vulnerable state I’m in. It’s really downplaying the very real situation I’m trying desperately to gain control of.

“You need to calm down.” That one is my favorite one to hate. No one likes to be told that when they’re upset, so I really don’t feel like I need to explain why I don’t like hearing this during a meltdown.

And, the last one isn’t so much a phrase, but there’s always someone who feels the need to observe all of the times in which I’m not making sense, or how my behavior (to them) is inappropriate to the situation. They give me the rundown on everything they don’t like about what I’m saying, or how I’m saying it, even though this feels extremely patronizing and is probably the worst thing to do. It’s the adult version of taking away privileges for misbehaving, which I am adamantly against any adult doing to a kid in the middle of a meltdown.

I know sometimes we are rude and difficult during a meltdown. I’m not saying we should just get by with doing whatever we want and saying whatever we want, but please try to understand that a meltdown is a situation likely occurring because we’ve exceeded our limits of coping. Help us get back down to a calm level. We likely don’t want to be nasty. We want to feel better, but we can’t gain control over the situation. We don’t need to be told that we’re not behaving well. We know this. We just can’t stop, and telling us about the consequences or that we’re not being nice is like throwing gas on a fire. I already feel worthless and like my world is ending during a meltdown. I don’t need to be told more negatives.

So, what is a good response, at least for me?

“I see you are upset/hurting. How can I help?” or “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad. I am here to support you when and if you need it.”

That is it. No criticizing. No arguing with me. And above all, no more demands. Reassure and support. Don’t react and engage.

Follow this journey on Thoughts of an Introverted Matriarch.

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