Please Don’t Call My Child’s Meltdown a ‘Tantrum’

I couldn’t understand what my daughter was trying to tell me, but she was pointing frantically and trying as hard as she could to say something. Her words were slurred and gobbled together. I could hear she was intent on saying something specific, but I could not discern any actual words. The cashier eyeballed us both carefully as her words turned to screeches.

We’ve got to get out of here, I thought as my daughter began to melt down.

I paid as quickly as I could, but my daughter had already started screaming and thrashing as tears slipped down her cheeks.

They probably think I am kidnapping my own child, I worried silently as the curious eyes going into and out of the store watched me push the cart toward the car. I ignored the dirty looks and shaking heads as I spoke to my daughter soothingly. My heart ached because it seemed to me like she knew what she wanted to say, but her words were unable to take form.

“I am so sorry, sweetie. Mommy is having a hard time understanding you,” I said.

Finally, I heard what sounded like the word “bag” as she pointed at one of the grocery bags. It clicked, and I thought she might have been trying to tell me she wanted to carry her favorite crackers out of the store. Her frustration seemed to be appeased, and her tears disappeared as she happily hugged her box of crackers when she was buckled into her car seat.

I have encountered looks of judgment during my child’s meltdown. But in my experience, what might look to others like a “tantrum” in public is actually my sweet little girl trying to speak.

She has speech issues related to childhood apraxia of speech, which is a speech disorder that involves the muscles used for speech and the brain having difficulty sending the appropriate signals. A child with apraxia might have difficulty communicating effectively, which can cause the child frustration. In my daughter, this frustration might manifest itself in the form of anxiety, withdrawal or screaming in an attempt to be heard.

Our daughter was a quiet baby and prone to choking episodes that got worse with solid food. When she was 2 years old, our pediatrician recommended a speech evaluation that led to evaluations by an occupational therapist, school psychologist and a special needs educator. We went through sensory assessments, learned new terminology, went over signs and discussed IEPs.

When the evaluations were over, we learned that her intelligence, behavior and comprehension were considered “typical.” We were also presented with a plan to start therapy for childhood apraxia of speech.

Our daughter will turn 4 in a few months, and she is becoming more intelligible, even if she often reverts to what is referred to as “jargon.” Each day, I am understanding more and more of what she is saying due to a combination of her increasing intelligibility and my own ability to better discern her speech. Some days, though, I’m not able to understand her as well. There are some days she has meltdowns.

Next time you see a parent whose child is having a meltdown, save the dirty looks and accusing glances. There is often much more going on than meets the eye. And remember, kind gestures can go a long way.

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