I’m going to go out on a limb here and post something that is parenting-related, not because I’m any kind of expert (even after seven kids) but because I think there might be a chance that someday someone might read this and find it helpful.
Sometimes, when I’m out and about, I see a young parent struggling to deal with a screaming child. There are many reasons why a baby or toddler might be screaming, from hunger to exhaustion to a dirty diaper to having his or her little will thwarted. Sometimes, though, I wonder if it might be something else–something that I had to deal with when I was a newly-minted parent.
When our daughter Lina was born, it seemed like she cried nonstop for the first seven months. To begin with, there were feeding issues that are not the focus of this essay. Then we found out she was lactose intolerant. Very, very lactose intolerant. (Talk about screaming!) She also had a baffling sensitivity to all orange fruits and vegetables. She ate them willingly but had to pay a high price for doing so.
I had this idealistic vision of my baby having the run of the house, and of course I would lovingly train her to refrain from touching stuff that was breakable or fragile. As the months went by, however, I began to see an interesting pattern emerging. When Lina had the run of the house, she became almost frantic in her efforts to experience everything at once, and before long she became overwhelmed and just started screaming.
I had been given one of those very old-fashioned folding wooden playpens, and I had assumed that I would never actually use it, but I soon found that it was a lifesaver. When Lina was “out” crawling or in her walker, I would watch her closely for signs that she was beginning to feel overwhelmed. I learned to identify the symptoms that a meltdown was imminent, and I would pick her up and set her down in the playpen with her blanket and her pacifier. She would sit in the corner and begin the process of calming herself down. There was a very specific routine that she had where she fingered her blanket edge a certain way, and only after she had finished her “long corner” could she cope with the world in any meaningful way.
I can’t tell you what a relief it was to me once I had identified the problem. Now that I knew that my daughter was very easily overstimulated, I could take steps to minimize her exposure to overwhelming stimuli. This meant that shopping excursions needed to be brief, especially if the store was crowded. Loud music was right out. Interestingly, the TV was not a problem because she mostly ignored it unless it was very loud.
Eventually, she outgrew her playpen but not the need for it. We got one of those folding fences that we could form into an enclosure in our living room. It took up about half the floor, but it still was a confined space where she could retreat when she was overstimulated. She needed that “safe” place until she was two and a half.
By then, she was old enough to be taught how to calm herself down without the enclosure. I picked her favorite end of the couch to be her “safe” place. When I could see that a meltdown was imminent, I sprang into action. “Go get your blanket!” I’d say in a cheerful voice. “Run!” (I knew it was a race against time and I wanted us to win!) She would run to get her blanket. “Quick!” I’d say. “Get up on the couch!” She would climb up on the couch. “Now stay there until you’re happy,” I’d say.
At that age, she was pretty much over the pacifier, but she still needed the blanket routine to soothe herself. She would sit there on the couch, working hard to calm herself down. It took effort, but she understood that it was necessary, and I like to think that she wanted to avoid a meltdown as much as I wanted her to. When she had achieved equilibrium, she’d announce “I’m happy now,” and she’d be ready to take part in whatever happened to be going on in our household. Sometimes it took five minutes and sometimes it took close to an hour.
Eventually, of course, she learned to calm herself down without prompting and without any obvious props. She still was very easily overstimulated, especially by loud noises, but once you know that, you can work around it a lot of the time.
Now, when I see young parents with a screaming child, I can’t help wondering if the kid is just so overwhelmed by all the visual, audio and tactile stimuli that he or she simply can’t cope except by screaming. I have no idea how many children have this characteristic. I never discussed this with our doctor, because he made fun of me when I told him Lina was allergic to orange food. I figured he would assume I was a complete whacko if I told him about the overstimulation problem. Besides, I’m a big fan of taking initiative. I identified the problem, and created a way of dealing with it that worked for us.
This same technique worked with all of my children, by the way, when they got themselves worked up for any reason. They all had a special blanket, and when I saw that they were becoming irrational and headed for a meltdown, I would cheerfully remind them to get their blanket and go sit on their bed until they were happy. It was not a punishment or a “time out.” It was just a strategy for dealing with overwhelming emotions and learning to calm down without screaming their heads off until they exhausted themselves. They knew that as soon as they were back in control they could rejoin the rest of us with a smile on their face.
If anything I’ve written here rings a bell with you, then I’d encourage you to take initiative too. If your child is easily overstimulated, I hope you can help him or her develop a coping routine. It makes a huge difference!