The Meltdown Kid
November 21, 2013 1:53 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I have been married 15 years and we have an 8-year-old daughter. She is incredibly intelligent and receives straight As in school. She participates in the gifted program and reads at a 6th grade level. She has always been an intense child -- one who feels emotions strongly. But after we moved about a year ago, things started to move up a notch and third grade has been very difficult. She has these meltdowns, usually over small things.

For example, this week she lost a rubber band bracelet on the playground. When the teacher told her recess was over and it was time to go it, she dissolved into full-out sobbing mess and refused to come in. There have been other times when she's had a meltdown within the classroom, and she hides behind the coats or backpacks. During a particularly bad meltdown a couple weeks ago, the teacher sent her to a chill-out corner and she began to pound her fists on the ground and scream. The principal and assistant principal have been called in to remove her from the classroom until she can get control of herself.

When she is in meltdown mode, she can say incredibly mean and hurtful things. She yells and raises her voice. For about 10 minutes, if you try to talk to her things will just escalate. You have to leave her totally alone until the meltdown passes. Needless to say, this has been extremely disruptive to her school classroom. It's also placed limitations on what she can do outside of school. Team sports are out -- she can't be throwing these tantrums on the field. She doesn't get invited to birthday parties. She does have 2-3 friends, but the other kids are starting to avoid her. I don't blame them. She can be really mean during a meltdown. Outside of a meltdown she is extremely sweet and caring.

After the meltdown is over, she does feel some level of regret, but she doesn't seem to be embarrassed at all. It's just 10 minutes, maybe 20, and she is back to being more stable.

She tested high for some ADHD behaviors, so we have her on the tiniest dose of Concerta. The teacher says it has helped immensely with her focus in school, but not the meltdowns. We've also tried taking her to a play-based therapist and an occupational therapist. We saw no improvement, even after going to OT for several months. The school counselor has tried working with her. None of this helps. She does have some sensory tools at school -- a special nubby seat cushion, velcro under her desk -- just in case these meltdowns might be sensory in nature. They don't help.

I'm just at the end of my rope. I am a stay-at-home mom, my husband has a demanding job at a big company. We do have different parenting styles and he is much more lenient. I am more likely to punish her for her behavior. I'm just so exhausted. I get calls and emails from the school every week, and I'm trying everything. We do have an appointment with a child psychologist but it is a couple weeks away. Any advice or suggestions?

Throwaway email at .
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (47 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
She tested high for some ADHD behaviors, so we have her on the tiniest dose of Concerta.

Who tested her? Who came to this conclusion? If it was some hokey school counselor or a GP then yea, go see an actual child psychologist.

I saw that you have an actual appointment scheduled, and i'd say you really need to just hold down the fort until then. This sounds like classic non-neurotypical stuff to me.
posted by emptythought at 2:01 PM on November 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

A friend is working through this book about "sensitive children" to deal with her daughter's meltdowns. I can't vouch for it (I think there are other books with similar titles), but it might be something to consider. Your experiences with your daughter are pretty similar to what my friend describes with hers.

Good luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:07 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

The above app lets you track feelings and reactions when you are adhd meds. It might help to know if her outbursts are cyclical or related to the timing of when she takes her meds during the day.
posted by spunweb at 2:08 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is there any trend to WHEN these happen? Like at what point in the day? I was around that age when diagnosed with hypoglycemia, and when my blood sugar hits certain low points, rage or uncontrollable FEELS are a symptom. Eating a granola bar with protein (like a Clif bar or similar) helps SO MUCH it is kind of ridiculous.

I didn't really have the meltdowns at school, but would at home, often because it'd been too long after a meal, or I'd eaten something sugary so I spiked and then was crashing.

I am not a doctor, I am someone who STILL sometimes starts getting SUPER WORKED UP over something, and there's a little voice in the back of my head going "this is probably not an appropriate reaction to this situation" but I can't stop it unless I eat something and can calm down. I also know that having an overwhelming feeling of doom and horribleness is an EAT NOW signal.

I'd suggest packing a few Clif bars with her and talking to teachers and maybe getting her to eat something, because a. it might help if it is blood sugar, and b. it distracts from the intense focus. If it DOES help, discuss with doctor.
posted by HermitDog at 2:09 PM on November 21, 2013 [21 favorites]

Does she have an IEP or a 504? You should consider requesting one with the help of your dr. Have you talked to her meds dr? Could it be that the Concerta is wearing off as her tantrums occur. I take ADHD meds and when they wear off, I can be cranky.

On another note, have you tried just talking to her (mom to kid) about what she's feeling when she goes through an episode. Pick a time when she's relaxed and see what she says. I really recommend reading Driven to Distraction as a guide to help you work with her.
posted by lasamana at 2:14 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Gifted children can show behaviours which mimic ADHD. (This isn't the best link but I can't remember where I saw the paper on this topic). Concerta can increase anxiety - I had to come off it and move to Strattera for that reason. Meltdowns could be triggered/made worse by anxiety. On preview - yes I could also get so tired when it wore off that I could end up having outbursts of crankiness as an adult. Sounds like something to be checked out with a specialist who works with the gifted and who's aware of when there is/is not something else going on. If there is both giftedness and ADHD it may be that concerta is not the right medication - see a specialist who knows both ADHD and giftedness.
posted by Flitcraft at 2:21 PM on November 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also, I found that my husband was much more chill with our kids then I was simply because he was away a lot. I was with them pretty much constantly and tended (probably still do) to worry about stupid shit. You should take a break. I know how hard it is when you have a kid that has an issue but you are her number one caregiver and it's hard job. Make sure you take care of yourself.

BTW change s hard for the ADHD person. A big move, a new school, new friends, can all overwhelm. Is there an interest she has that she can pursue out of school? It might help her recalibrate.
posted by lasamana at 2:22 PM on November 21, 2013

I don't see punishment working here, I think it would exacerbate her bad feelings and drive her away from you.

One thing that often makes people freak out is being negated (their emotions being deemed incorrect or their view/experience labelled "wrong").

She lost her bracelet. She wants to find it. Teacher says time to come in. (Implied: your bracelet, and thus your feelings, are not important.) Child melts down.

This is especially worse for sensitive people. If the move has stressed her out, she has less energy to cope with those small negations. So have you talked to her about the move? Was she happy about it? How do you guys talk to her in general? Are you careful to acknowledge & validate her feelings? If you can validate her, and teach her to validate herself, then she may calm down.

Are there non-judgy ways that you can walk her through the consequences of her actions? Have her focus on her love for her friends, and thus this love can help her not say nasty things. (Instead of "bad girl! you said nasty things!") Can you story tell or find children's movies that talk about frustration? I'm a big fan of using stories to get subtle messages across.

Do you have financial resources to try some child-therapy or anger/frustration coping resources? It is a little odd that she isn't embarrassed or apologetic, but it could be that she is deeply resisting feeling bad. If she acknowledged her outburst, it would negate her hurt feelings that caused the outburst; chicken and egg problem so she won't apologize.

I could see this being a big issue, so it's great that you are looking into resolution.

[edit: I see you have a therapy appointment booked. Great!]
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:23 PM on November 21, 2013 [17 favorites]

When we got divorced, my son had meltdowns. I had to learn to ignore meltdowns-in-progress, except for making sure he didn't hurt himself. No payoff for a meltdown - no extra attention, either pleasant or un-. During non-meltdown times, lots and lots of extra attention and listening. 8 is old enough for her to tell you or a therapist if there's anything going on at home, school, elsewhere. We had several stuffed animal puppets - my son was able to talk to the puppets more freely than directly to me, even though I was right there with my hand in the puppet, speaking for the puppet. Worth a shot, and puppets are really fun anyway.
posted by theora55 at 2:23 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

My son is 7, gifted, ADHD, and .... something else. (He's a big behavorial puzzle, actually.) He does have meltdowns almost exactly as you describe. He is not currently on any medication.

We are currently seeing a pediatric developmental specialst (an MD with the speciality "Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics") to try and find a root diagnosis for him, but even she admits that there may never be a firm label for him (and that's fine with us). He's still undergoing testing, but this doctor has told us, informally, that she believes that for my son the meltdown behavior is either a sensory issue or due to being on somewhere on the autism spectrum. But, again a) this is for my child, not yours, and b) his testing is not complete.

That being said, and regardless of the cause, he's worked for the past year with an applied behavior analyst and is on an ABA treatment plan. Here's some info and if you Google, you'll find a lot more. In a lot of ways, ABA is just CBT for kids -- it's focused on behaviors, and not really so much on what the specific diagnosis might be that causes the behaviors, but rather looks at what the direct, immediate triggers are for the behavior.

ABA has been life changing for us. His ABA therapist works with him in public school, and in just a year we've seen a huge, huge difference in his ability to self-regulate and use coping strategies over that time. It has also changed the way we parent (punishment really doesn't work to curb this, as we've learned through painful experience), and has given my son the gift of being able to understand himself.

IEPs are for education, so they can only require strategies that would affect her "access to education" -- if the meltdowns don't affect her ability to learn, the it's unlikely that you'll get ABA in her IEP. (For us, it was clear that the meltdowns affected his ability to actually remain in a traditional classroom -- he'll flee the room and hide when he starts to melt down -- so we had ABA while we were still on the MD's waiting list.)

So, I strongly recommend that you have her evaluated by someone who specializes is developmental pediatrics, and start looking at what your options are for ABA therapy both in and outside of the school setting.
posted by anastasiav at 2:29 PM on November 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

My nephew had eerily similar behaviour and was finally diagnosed with hypoglycemia, my SIL had to really push to get the doctors to take her seriously as they just kept saying he was ADHD and wanted to put him on meds and it was only when my diabetic mother lent her a spare glucose monitor that she got proof to show her sons doctor. Not saying that's the case, but in his case it was easily controlled with more strict attention to his diet. He's even got to the point now where he can recognize the signs of a meltdown are coming and ask his teacher if he can eat one of his snacks.

To give you some idea of the changes, his parents are going through a nasty messy divorce a year after his diagnosis and even with all the added stress he has not had one meltdown during the entire process because his mother and grandmother are making sure he eats right no matter what. Oh and he's gone from being diagnosed as dyslexic to keeping up with the rest of his class for the most part and stopped the special tutor he was having.
posted by wwax at 2:33 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not a parent, and not a child psychologist - only reporting with what I hope are anecdotal observations about a child I saw go through similar meltdowns. One of my cousin's other cousins (you know, a cousin from my own uncle's in-laws) was a lot like this in her tweens - the few times I remember being around her, I remember a lot of running-out-of-the-room-in-tears and sulky tantrums and snits over comparatively small things.

Fast forward to a couple years ago, where she was all grown up and hosting my cousin's baby shower - and was totally and completely fine.

So I can't speak to how to overcome this - but I can speak to the fact that overcoming it is possible.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:35 PM on November 21, 2013

I want to agree with EmpressCallipygos... overcoming it happens

my older brother (who is the. smartest. person.) was a child of freaky rages. he would have temper tantrums and be dragged out of restaurants, clawing and screaming on the regular.

now he's all grown up and I'm not sure if I've even seen him get frustrated or crabby in 15 years.

my mom likes to say he used up all his temper before he was a teenager.

I was also prone to snappy rages when I was a child and ended up having a severe intolerance to oats that was the cause. so you could get her checked for a diet issue too. it could just be something with my family, but we were all pretty tempestuous smart children who grew up to be cool-headed adults.
posted by euphoria066 at 2:49 PM on November 21, 2013

I taught a classroom full of 3rd graders like that 10 years ago at a private school for the gifted. In fact, most of our students were there precisely because they had behavioral issues that didn't mesh well with their previous schools, and our teachers just weren't fazed by that stuff. Something like that might be an option for you, and if not, I can at least offer some reassurance that I knew kids with extremely similar tendencies who basically grew out of it and now attend universities you've heard of. Note that I'm not advising you to ignore it--when I say we were unfazed, I don't mean extremes of this kind of stuff didn't get reasonable attention, disciplinary and medical. But I do think patience will be its own reward.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:52 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not a parent but I used to be a meltdown kid myself (and I also was gifted and had ADHD). The bad news is it continued well into my teens. The good news is I still have a pretty good memory of what set me off and how I eventually learned to avoid melting down.

The primary trigger for me was the feeling that something fundamentally unjust (not just frustrating or disappointing) had been done to me. Then when authority figures denied that anything was even wrong or needed to be fixed that drove me absolutely out-of-control crazy.

If you think that your daughter might be similarly driven, you might try focusing on teaching her constructive problem-solving skills for dealing with unjust situations and seemingly arbitrary constraints, while also validating that she has a legitimate reason to feel upset by them. "You're right, that's not fair. How can we fix this while still [situational constraints]?"

Like with the bracelet situation, from her perspective she may have felt she was cruelly being forced to abandon her property due to the teacher's ruthless adherence to the arbitrary bell schedule. And while some might say, "what's the big deal, it's just a rubber bracelet?" others might say, "what's the big deal, it's just being a little bit late in from recess?" (Imagine how you might feel as an adult if you'd dropped your wedding ring or keys in the grass somewhere and your carpool driver was all "I don't care how important it is, we're leaving RIGHT NOW, no I won't wait just five minutes for you to find it, no I won't help you look for it" when there was no actually pressing need for the carpool to leave right now versus five minutes from now.)

So it's not unreasonable for her to feel that it's not fair that she's not allowed to find her bracelet before going inside. However, given the teacher's unwillingness to negotiate on this, going inside when the recess bell rings is an immovable constraint. Since she can't stay outside looking for the bracelet after the recess bell has rung, what are some other ways that she could be made whole again in this situation? Brainstorm several alternative courses of action:
A) Check the school's Lost and Found to see is someone else found the bracelet
B) Ask a parent to help her look for the bracelet on the school yard after school
C) Buy/make a new rubber band bracelet
D) Decide that the bracelet isn't that important to her

The point isn't the viability of each of those possible solutions (and don't just push option D because it seems easiest or because you can't imagine the bracelet being that important -- at that age, seemingly trivial objects often seem imbued with special powers and/or sentimental significance and thus can be ZOMG THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD), the point is to help her see that she actually has many constructive options for how to pursue a just end within the constraint of having to go back inside at the end of recess.

Talk with her sometime when she is calm (either well after an incident or before a new incident escalates into full blown rage meltdown) and help her analyze the situations that have been setting her off. Discuss why it was upsetting (and validate her feelings -- validating her feelings is not the same as validating her inappropriate actions) and then make a game of coming up with as many ideas as she can for how she (with or without help) could have solved the problem within the constraints. For now, just focus on exercising her ability to see alternatives -- you can work with her on how assess the relative merits of the various solutions and strategies for deciding which should be plan A, plan B, etc. later.

Basically, you want help her move from the thought process of "I need to do X --> Constraint is preventing me from doing X --> This is unfair --> MELTDOWN!" to the thought process "I need to do X --> Constraint is preventing me from doing X in the way I originally planned to do X --> What are some other ways I can still achieve doing X within the constraint?"

Please feel free to MeMail me if you have any other specific situations or incidents that you'd like to get a (mostly) reformed former meltdown kid's perspective on. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 2:56 PM on November 21, 2013 [52 favorites]

If you join a list for help parenting your gifted child, you will learn that many bright kids do fine from k-2 but start having problems in 3rd grade. I have two gifted sons. I pulled both out of school when my youngest was in 3rd grade.

In most schools, k-2 is not very academically focused. They have a party every month. They have frequent recess breaks. Math is done with "manipulatives" (toys). My youngest son initially viewed school as friends, parties, and access to more stuff to do and play with. He loved school and was a happy kid. Then we moved to a crappy school, where he started 3rd grade, and both sons came home either crying or grumpy every day. One issue: Now that my youngest had to do academics and had less playtime, school was suddenly an onerous chore.

If you are a bright kid and get to go to school essentially to play, you can tolerate occasionally sitting down and proving you know the alphabet that you learned before school ever started or you know something boring about numbers. But when your whole day is suddenly about proving you can do stupid tricks you mastered long ago, it soon gets really frustrating with no real payoff.

As others have said, get her reassessed wrt the ADHD. It is a frequent misdiagnosis for what I call "bored gifted kid syndrome". One school attempted to tell us my oldest was ADHD and to "put him on ritalin" because he could not sit still. He had been previously properly assessed and determined to be not ADHD. My husband got pretty angry and told them to stick it. We then enrolled him in gymnastics.

I strongly recommend you join a gifted parenting list and get the child assessed properly by a qualified professional. It is entirely possible that academic enrichment or a grade skip will solve everything. It is also possible there are other things going on, like hypoglycemia. (I used to be severely hypoglycemic. Yes, it can cause emotionally unstable behavior.)

(My background: I was a sahm and I volunteered a lot at public school. We were a military family and moved a lot. I got to see schools in four states in the short time my sons were in school. I also homeschooled my sons for many years and was one of the "directors" for a time for an organization trying to get official 503c charity status. I have attended a gifted conference, was one of the low level presenters at said conference that year, etc. and gave a lot of advice on this topic for a number of years.)
posted by Michele in California at 2:57 PM on November 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

I agree that punishment does not sound appropriate here; this does not sound like stuff she has control over.

Why don't you homeschool? The school doesn't seem to be offering any benefit here; more the reverse. Comparable scenarios are relatively common among new homeschoolers and I hear nothing but relief from them once they settle into homeschooling. It need not be a permanent decision to keep her at home, of course. The flexibility of homeschooling social circles, and heavy parent involvement, would give her a lot more opportunities for friendships, and for fun. What is going on in her life that's fun? Her life sounds stressful.

My 6yo has the odd freak-out and the answer is usually just that a snack and hugs are needed; I assume that has already been thought of here. But I mention because if I wanted to escalate the freak-out I think sending her to a corner, in a classroom in front of peers, would be a good way to do it. I am not really meaning to criticise the teacher here, who undoubtedly does not have adequate resources to do anything else, just: do ask yourself if school is actually a good fit for her right now.
posted by kmennie at 2:59 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Michele summed it up pretty well - It could be diet related but also don't dismiss boredom. She may be too advanced for the people around her and unable to process it properly. Be careful about giving her drugs that might (edit: inadvertently) up her anxiety.
posted by heyjude at 2:59 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

What does she say about her behavior? How does she feel before, during and after? Does she feel like she did something wrong? If so, and if you believe in punishing, what does she think would be fair? Does she have any idea what would be helpful?

I think you're doing well as parents and the psychologist may help too. Maybe a bit of checking in daily and allowing her to process her feelings with out judgement would help. Maybe empowering her to be involved in managing her own behavior will help too.
posted by PeaPod at 3:03 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's absolutely possible for an 8 year old to be having full blown anxiety attacks. I know since I did. In fact what you're describing sounds exactly like me 30-some years ago. At the time my parents and teachers agreed that it was a "phase" that some children go through. It wasn't, and I finally broke the anxiety cycle through therapy in my 30s.

I wish that someone had known what it was then and had got me to a therapist who could work through some CBT stuff and some deep relaxation techniques with me. It would have made a huge difference to how the rest of my life played out until I finally got the right therapist and got over the problem.

I still don't know what caused the onset but that's less important than breaking the anxiety reinforcement cycle.
posted by merocet at 3:05 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I think one reason gifted kids are more prone to meltdowns is that we're more able to see that so many constraints are being arbitrarily imposed vs. Just The Way It Is.

Typical kids just accept that the bell means recess is over and it's time to go inside whereas more thoughtful kids eventually realize that the recess schedule, our expected response to the bell ringing, and any consequences imposed for ignoring it are all just social constructions and not immutable laws of physics. Acting like these are all unbreakable rules when they so clearly are not can come across as the rule enforcers being willfully stupid and/or mean. Of course that's rage-inducing!
posted by Jacqueline at 3:15 PM on November 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

Childhood bipolar disorder is frequently misdiagnosed as ADHD, and stimulants are generally contraindicated. This is not a diagnosis, and I don't want to scare you! But I am wondering why you are going to a child psychologist instead of a psychiatrist at this point, given that your daughter is already on medication. Counseling may well be indicated, but you really really do not want her on the wrong meds. Stimulants can be terrible for kids prone to mania (and mania in kids often manifests as frequent meltdowns). Whatever your daughter's problem is -- and maybe it isn't psychiatric at all! -- I recommend you get a thorough evaluation first, and a psychiatrist is best equipped to provide one.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:21 PM on November 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

I get panic attacks from my ADD meds--although that's mostly well-controlled now--and have always gotten panic attacks to some degree, but this doesn't much match what I remember of it, anyway. But it seems clear it's something real and not just malingering, and punishing kids for having mental health issues is really, really, REALLY a bad idea. Unless you feel like having your kids resent you well into their 30s. Cough. Punish kids for things they can control.

The sort of meltdowns an OT can help for would probably have been things that started much younger; it's not impossible, but it seems iffy to me that these would all of a sudden be caused by sensory integration issues. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, a lot of adults have these things and a lot of people who get diagnosed as adults had them as children, too. It's good that you're working on this now and not just dismissing your kid as a Bad Kid. There's a lot of trial-and-error in mental health treatment, but if you take it seriously and keep working on it, you will probably work something out. The child psychologist is a good step--you may need to try several, but eventually someone will be able to make some progress if you just keep trying.

Unfortunately, mental health treatment requires Dalai Lama kind of levels of patience. You're frazzled, but just do the best you can while you're working through it.
posted by Sequence at 3:43 PM on November 21, 2013

Nothing you've said seemed that weird to me, when I think of the children I know who have autism. Has anyone tested her for that?
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:45 PM on November 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

If this is a recent problem, is it possible that she's going through early puberty? Puberty was when I started to have meltdowns of this sort. Those hormones are powerful.

Other than that, I agree that you need to be careful not to reinforce the behavior in the moment by paying attention to it. I also think that 8 is an age where you can start giving her tools for emotional mastery--talking to her about her feelings, and how her acting out of those feelings impacts others. Discuss, when things are calm, other coping mechanisms, too. As someone who used to punch holes in the walls, I can tell you that these meltdowns are probably much scarier for her than she lets on.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:48 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

There were two things that really helped our same-age daughter with this. First was making sure she had some real protein at breakfast. This made such an immediate difference she recognizes it too. The other was this wonderful book:

What To Do When Your Temper Flares

The emotional response to bad things happening is part of being a person; what this book teaches in a CBT-style way is self-awareness and calming behaviors and ideas that can be practiced and developed as skills. Highly recommended.
posted by ulotrichous at 3:53 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I will note that the move could also be a contributing factor, especially if moving a lot is not some normal thing for your family. New home, new friends, etc can be additional stressors, especially if the child experienced this as unexpected and thought her old friends, old school, etc were all she would ever know.

Expanding on Jacqueline's remarks about bright kids and a sense of Justice: My youngest son was always ready to go on a rampage over Injustice. Pulling him out of public school helped. If your child reads at a 6th grade level but is still required to go through the empty motions of doing 3rd grade work and is one of these little Justice Warriors, yeah, she is being subjected to a huge and very real injustice which she can do nothing about and which most adults will dismiss as a concern. With being unable to right the big wrong in her own life, her frustration will tend to be channelled into trying to fix every little injustice that seems like it might be something she can control. Getting her into a more appropriate educational setting can go a long, long way towards calming that tendency down.

(I am the asshole parent my youngest son got his Justice streak from, so I understood his tendencies very well. There were lots of other things I did to get him to tone it down. But doing right by him educationally and in other ways put me on the high ground and made it much easier to say " Stop this." over small stuff.)
posted by Michele in California at 4:13 PM on November 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your kid sounds like my kid, who's now eleven. She started having minimeltdowns at maybe five, and by the time she was nine or ten, it was a constant, almost every day thing.

Two things have helped. The first is recognizing that her anger is mostly a manifestation of anxiety/panic, and seeking medical help for that. It's not something we've managed to deal with fully, and it's clear that at some point she's going to require more than just therapy.

The other, and, frankly, significantly more helpful thing, is putting her in an online school. She started in September, and I honestly feel like a horrible person for not doing it sooner. It's like having a totally different child. She's calmer, she's more able to deal with frustration, and the horrible, abusive breakdowns that were happening multiple times a week, if not multiple times a day have dried up. They still happen, but yesterday's was the first in probably a month.

You said that you're a stay at home mom--I honestly think that the single best thing you could do for a child like this, regardless of any underlying gifted/adhd/autism/panic/whatever issues, is switching to some form of home-based education. Feel free to memail me if this is a thing that you'd like to talk about.
posted by MeghanC at 4:20 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

ulotricious - thanks for the link. What a great looking series of books. I just bought "When you Dread Your Bed" a kids guide to insomnia. That would be life changing for us.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 4:27 PM on November 21, 2013

My child that I've mentioned before, that was, I believe, wrongly diagnosed as ADHD as a young preschooler, exhibited similar meltdowns - almost always, in some way, if one paid close attention to the circumstances, attributable to perfectionist or "completionist" issues. (By completionist, I mean exactly what it sounds like - I made up a word to describe his overwhelming need to just freaking FINISH what he's doing.)

At his core, there's always been a need to do things complete and right, and nearly always, though he might have screamed at those around him, he was actually angry - frustrated - with himself.

These days, I'm 99.9% sure that he is not ADHD whatsoever, but is either very high-functioning Aspergers or has a high number of Asperger's traits, with a high IQ to boot.

We pulled him out of public school in mid-kindergarten to homeschool - the situation was making me, the teacher, and everyone around miserable and frustrated. Most of all, it was changing my happy, extraordinarily sweet little boy into a stressed, unhappy mess.

Solved the handwriting meltdowns by paying attention and realizing that he thought his letters had to be exactly - and I mean EXACTLY - like the one printed on the page. Ten minutes of dragging every book I could find that had a different style of lowercase "r" off the shelf, five minutes of talking about it with him, and we never had another handwriting meltdown.

Never had another meltdown at all, in fact, because I learned pretty quick to watch out for the things that might trigger his frustration, and talk him through ways to deal with it. And I advocated for him with the family, friends, and kids-social-leaders - and taught them. Made me mad that through two years of preschool, and half a year of kindergarten, and not a one of those teachers - and later specialists - had actually paid attention to what was going on. Yeah, they'd tell him to use his words - but they never gave him the words to use.

Now, he's thirteen, an active Boy Scout, reliable and responsible, if a little prone to getting sidetracked in his projects at times - and those screaming meltdowns are so far in the past that everyone has pretty much forgotten them, except for me - I'm thankful every single day that I took the hard road and yanked him out of public school, because it would have probably destroyed him. And I'm sorta looking forward to finding out who he's going to be.

That's my C's story. My point? It might not be bad behavior, or a bad temper, or even a major psychological issue, though if you're really at a loss, get the pro's help. We weren't in a position to, and I felt I had to do something RIGHT NOW. I'd had it. And so I did.
posted by stormyteal at 4:27 PM on November 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

I still remember having meltdowns as a kid and running into adulthood. My parents made fun of me all the time as a little kid because my mood always improved drastically when I ate, so clearly there's always been a connection; unfortunately I didn't figure out until I was 25 that meals with protein and fat meant it lasted longer before I was hungry.

It's not just the food thing for me though; I also got my terrible temper from my family (and that I still haven't solved). Is there someone (you, your spouse, a grandparent?) in your family who solves problems by yelling? If not, great; try all the other solutions people have listed here.

If so, yeah, work on solving that problem, if it's yours to solve. If it's an extended family member, it might be a good idea to deconstruct what happened after the person leaves; e.g. "Grandpa was upset because x. He expressed it by yelling, but there are other ways to address the issue, such as Y and Z."
posted by nat at 4:50 PM on November 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Based on my experience as a meltdown kid: Can you provide some physical activity that's also calming? I walked a lot for four decades, and now I swim. Both activities encourage deep, relaxed breathing.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:33 PM on November 21, 2013

Response by poster: I was also a gifted meltdown kid. Everything Jacqueline said rings true. Feelings of things being unjust or unfair often triggered anger and strong emotions. My mom was a fan of "Because I say so" and "I'm the mom, you're the kid" as explanations, and punishment as a response for being upset. Those things don't work if your kid is bright enough to recognize they're fundamentally arbitrary and based in the whims of the authority figure. Not to say you should negotiate everything with your child--sometimes you just need to put your foot down--but be prepared to listen to her feelings and offer more in-depth explanations of your decisions than "Because I said so".

Also, I developed depression extremely early and that contributed to the anger and tantrums too. So you may want to watch out for that.
posted by Anonymous at 5:46 PM on November 21, 2013

I think your kid may be me. I'm with Jacqueline and schroedinger, too. I used to go hide under a table and cry in school, though that stopped in about the fourth grade. But the last time I had some kind of meltdown in school was my junior year in high school. (I'm sure that's what you wanted to hear.) It was the day the Iraq War started. I have no idea what was said, but it was the unfairness of the other kids thinking it was okay for people to die for whatever the final justification for the war was and that they were being mean to me for disagreeing. (I hadn't really thought about this in terms of fairness until now. But it makes total sense. The quickest way to get my brother upset when he was little was for people to break rules, which is in the same vein.)

In other news, I get really crabby when I'm hungry. It irritates me when my friends or family go "You need to eat something" because it makes me feel like I can't take care of myself. But, seriously, if there were such a thing as an automatically replenishing supply of granola bars in my bag, I'd be much happier. I'm probably not neurotypical, but neither my brother nor I quite nail the Asperger's or HFA criteria* and I don't think my parents ever got told anything much beyond "Well... they're, uh, interesting."

*Which are now both gone/repackaged as diagnoses?
posted by hoyland at 7:03 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Now that I've told you my life story, maybe I should answer the question. I'm sure my mom desperately wished that I was easier to live with, but she never punished me for getting upset.

I feel like the meltdowns happen because you don't know what else to do. Losing your bracelet at recess seems tiny, but it'd totally be distressing for me. (I managed to lose some pens in my backpack yesterday. I told myself that I probably left them on my desk, got to my office this morning and they weren't there. Decided to check my bag more thoroughly and found them, fallen to the bottom of a pocket. As a kid, or even a few years back, there would have been crying involved.)

Reading over your question again, I wonder about the school's handling of the situation. Like I said, I was allowed to hide under tables until I was ready to come out. I do remember a social worker trying to coach me to go hide in the bathroom rather than under a table, but, again, I was largely given room to cry and hide and come back when I was ready.
posted by hoyland at 7:14 PM on November 21, 2013

If I'm reading this correctly, the meltdowns started after you moved. It is always possible that her anger, frustration, and feelings of helplessness are stemming from something traumatic that is happening in her new environment.

Just wanted to point out that possibility. A child therapist would obviously be a good first step to uncovering such a problem, if it exists.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:31 PM on November 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with jacqueline and schrodinger. This was me. All great advice above, definitely look into the food thing. I know I can be unbelievably mean and have to keep in check how long I go without eating because of it. It's definitely something that you need to work on so it doesn't become a cycle of outburst, anger, guilt, shame, anxiety, depression. Especially because she's so young. A granola bar is handy and definitely some orange juice and whatever she eats that you immediately see an improvement on. Make sure that diet is also free of artificial colors and flavors and stick to basics and go from there. Similar to an elimination diet where you start off with like, oatmeal, bananas, pears, turkey, white rice.. that kind of thing. Maybe it will help.

Most importantly, find a way to talk it out with her that isn't focusing on the anger and outbursts as something to be ashamed of, but in a way to trust her emotions and reactions and to minimize hurting other people's feelings because she's upset. She seems really intellectually ahead of her age so treat her accordingly. She may feel as if she's mature enough to logically comprehend something, but emotionally immature that she can't rightfully gauge the most tactful way of reacting to different situations.

I also got upset because it seemed like something arbitrary, or illogical. This is going to be something of a learning curve for the both of you just make sure that you go out of your way to show her that you love and care for her and that she can trust you. The puppet suggestion sounds good. I don't think contact sports is the way to go, try something more intellectually stimulating such as chess or anything science-y she might like. Also, stimulating books that are somewhat child appropriate but that will give her something to think about. I personally enjoyed Harry Potter books in 6th grade, maybe she might?

Don't react to her anger as something bad and to be diminished because then it can be misconstrued as a denial of her feelings and that will be a huge family rift issue when she gets older. Instead, show her positive ways to deal with stress and anxiety. Consider yoga and meditation techniques and possible visualization methods. Your daughter is very special and probably feels constricted by her age. Treat her as an individual and respect her boundaries because she needs to learn to ultimately trust herself. Maybe public school is not the best environment for her. She might do better being home schooled or placed in a magnet school or something.

Also, consider music. Music definitely helped keep me in balance and playing an instrument has so many benefits. But talk to her, find out what she thinks and pay close attention to what she says. She may be young, but if she can find an outlet in creativity to express her anger in positive ways, she may be able to grow up learning how to be better adjusted and respond in healthier ways. This is a valuable lesson everyone must learn growing up, she's just getting there a bit earlier than most would expect or anticipate but good on you for caring to learn about your daughter.

She may also be an introvert who needs a lot of alone time to make sense of her surroundings and situations she's been thrust in that she may not completely understand in the moment. Try to validate her emotions and feelings rather than just trying to tell her right/wrong or good/bad. Whenever she does have an outburst, try to have her reflect on why and be in a meditative state or even journal her feelings to get an insight as to what might have triggered that response. Engaging might be counterproductive because, if she's anything like me, when you're in that state you're not really thinking you just need to "GET IT OUT". Art therapy?
posted by lunastellasol at 11:07 PM on November 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I have been there. I have definitely been the little girl having meltdowns. And a lot of it had to do with moving house and changing schools and how nobody wanted to be my friend and the teachers didn't understand and it all was just NOT FAIR.

And punishing me didn't help, because it wasn't about me being intentionally "bad" - it was just that I couldn't communicate what I needed to happen. I didn't know how to make people understand what I needed. I could read at a 12th grade level when I was 9, but that didn't mean I could tell people why what they were doing was wrong.

So the child psychologist should definitely help - she needs to learn how to communicate, how to trust herself, how to know that, yeah, it's not fair, but it's okay, because other things are fair, and if she just gets through this, she can go and do something else.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:24 AM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi there! Fellow mom-of-a-meltdowner here! It's freaking AWFUL, ain't it? The insanely hurtful things they say, the sense of powerlessness, etc. Wee Thumbscrew has been in therapy for HIS rages for years now, and here's what's helped:

- DO NOT ENGAGE the kid when they're in a meltdown. Do not bring up punishment, do not get emotional, do NOT let your own emotions flare.

- Tell the kid, "Listen, I would love to help you with this, but NOT when you're like this. So you're gonna go calm down for a bit, and when you can be nice to me, we can talk."

- Physically remove the kid (in as nice a way possible, obviously) to their room, or another quiet, safe place and let them rage it out there for 10 - 15 minutes (you can be close by, if that makes you feel better).

- Go in and talk it out in a caring way AFTER they've calmed down.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:31 AM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Michele summed it up pretty well - It could be diet related but also don't dismiss boredom. She may be too advanced for the people around her and unable to process it properly.

This is a definite possibility. I was (am?) a meltdowner, and it always stems from stress of some kind. In school, I always tested very highly, but my performance did not match that. I was intellectually advanced, but socially unadvanced. (tl;dr: September baby with ADHD) So it might be helpful to investigate where she might be feeling stress. The stress may not necessarily be conscious- something like hating Sunday school. Even though it's not Sunday and the kid consciously feels rellieved, there is an underlying background level of stress that affects everything else.

Be careful about giving her drugs that might (edit: inadvertently) up her anxiety.

In general, ADHD medications act backwards in people with ADHD. Reducing the ADHD symptoms has a calming effect. They only become anxiety inducing if the dosage is too high, or the dosage spacing is wrong. OR, the medication just doesn't agree with the kid. For example, I do not tolerate methylphenidate. Even on long acting formulations, I have massive mood swings in the afternoon. Adderall, however, works great and is practically calming to me.
posted by gjc at 7:09 AM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

My child that I've mentioned before, that was, I believe, wrongly diagnosed as ADHD as a young preschooler, exhibited similar meltdowns - almost always, in some way, if one paid close attention to the circumstances, attributable to perfectionist or "completionist" issues. (By completionist, I mean exactly what it sounds like - I made up a word to describe his overwhelming need to just freaking FINISH what he's doing.)

At his core, there's always been a need to do things complete and right, and nearly always, though he might have screamed at those around him, he was actually angry - frustrated - with himself.

These days, I'm 99.9% sure that he is not ADHD whatsoever, but is either very high-functioning Aspergers or has a high number of Asperger's traits, with a high IQ to boot.

Those behaviors CAN be ADHD. Obsessiveness and perfectionism are the other sides of the distraction coin. When an ADHD sufferer is engaged in something, it boosts the calming concentration chemicals. Being torn away from that activity almost hurts.

Just food for thought.
posted by gjc at 7:15 AM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nthing find a new school, one that is set up to meet the needs of gifted students such as: a Gifted and Talented public or charter school, Homeschool (need not be at "home" as some US public school districts have "homeschool support" drop-off schools serving homeschooling families), online school, Montessori etc.

Montessori elementary school has been a godsend for my gifted, grade-skipped 6-year-old son - the mixed-age Montessori classroom lets him work with older children, and their therapeutic approach to peaceful problem-solving has helped him to build strong social skills. A typical Montessori school might handle a lost bracelet situation as a learning opportunity, and give your daughter the space and time to solve her own problem while respecting her dignity. Hugs to you, it's often lonely parenting a gifted kid because so few of the other parents can truly relate.
posted by hush at 7:33 AM on November 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you decide to do the granola bars, don't just get the Kelloggs stuff in the grocery store. Do some research and get bars with high levels of protein and low levels of sugars and preservatives and other chemicals.
posted by CathyG at 9:57 AM on November 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'm with Jacqueline and Katemonkey. Had you removed the part about one parent being lenient, and adjusted treatment descriptions to match the way of things in the 1980's, you could be my mom writing about me. It all started when I changed schools just before third grade. I moved from a rural school to one in town, and went from popular to outcast, without the mental tools to understand why. I was also a straight-A student and would have a meltdown whenever I got a B, because it seemed like my schoolwork was about the only thing in my life I had any control over. I had the exact same incident happen to me involving jewelry on the playground.

I feel much too close to this issue and the impact these things had on my life to be as eloquent as I'd like to be. But I implore you to talk to your daughter about what is happening, with all the patience and interest you can muster. I never had anyone to talk to who I could trust not to judge me or punish me for feeling the things that I did. I felt utterly alone throughout my school years, and my life and my health got a hell of a lot worse before they got any better. I could not escape into drugs and alcohol and ditch all optional responsibilities fast enough.

I'm alright nowadays, except for some ongoing intimacy issues, but it stings to know that my parents knew I was miserable and couldn't be bothered to do more than get me medicated--which actually did nothing for the boredom/terror/heartbreak of my day-to-day, or the sense of meaninglessness and impending doom that developed in my preteen years. They also punished me for getting upset sometimes, and lied to me about what the medication was for, both of which went a long way to cement my vision of the world as a cruel and nonsensical place in which no one could be trusted. As an adult, I still sort of think the world is that way, but I also wonder how different my life would be now if I had been more hopeful in those formative years when you're supposed to have hope. I've aimed low for as long as I can remember.
posted by heatvision at 10:41 AM on November 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have a family member who was like this as a kid, and it was caused in large part by food allergies. Maybe have her tested for that?
posted by nosila at 1:44 PM on November 22, 2013

Hi, that was me, too.

I agree totally with those that say these are probably triggered when she feels something is unfair. Justice is important to most kids that age to start with and if she is superintelligent she is gonna be seeing injustice all over the place without the maturity to handle that fact. And being a kid, dealing with frustration-well, meltdown.

One thing you can do is start talking to her and asking her how she feels right before a meltdown. And honestly I might tell her the truth about life, which is there are lot of unfair and arbitrary things in school and in life and that it pays to have strategies to cope with that fact. Not ever injustice can be righted, and sometimes, we just have to understand stuff is what it is, and being a child means even if you have a solution a lot of times no one is going to take you seriously.

If you can help her acknowledge that, it will still suck, but you will be giving her tools to deal with life.

One other thing-try hard not to pathologize her at this age. You don't want her feeling broken or flawed or "bad." Even if there is something medical or nonneurotypical going on. Just trust me on this one.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:58 AM on November 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would absolutely make sure she is properly and rigorously diagnosed if you are medicating her. The thing I am most thankful to my parents for is that they let this 'gifted,' justice-minded, angst-ridden, ADHD-ish kid NOT be forced onto medication. It was brought up, and they considered it, and they soundly rejected the idea of pathologizing me at such an incredibly young age, or risking the unpredictable consequences of serious medicine based on the child-medicating whims of the zeitgeist. I'm not saying what your child needs, but I was just like what you are describing, and it absolutely passed, but it is part of me and my development and my personality and the other side of the coin of my most treasured characteristics. Some direct, open discussion and respect for my internal experience and feelings would have gone a long way to easing some of my panic and anxiety. But no one was doing that. I'd recommend that as an incredibly powerful way to give her some sense of agency and a way of processing a sense of powerlessness and injustice, if that is what she is experiencing. Good luck navigating a difficult situation, however you choose to do it.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 3:30 PM on November 23, 2013

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