What to do with a kid who has a hair-trigger fight/flight response.
Our family had three nights away at a family reunion this week. We also had 16 hours in the car, driving there and back. The family reunion part was great, but the 16 hours were perhaps the longest and most painful I've lived through in a while.
The reason was simple: Bright Eyes did NOT want to be in that car. And everybody suffered for it.
First, before we left, he did his (very common) trick of hiding in his cupboard and refusing to leave the house. There wasn't much option but to lift him out, put him in the car and then keep a close watch on the central locking so that he wouldn't decide to get out en route. The first big meltdown lasted a full 20 minutes, all the way up the mountain.
After that came the rudeness ('you're an imbecile', 'this is bogus', 'sister is a miserable little rat'), the sarcasm ('Oh yeah?' 'make me, if you're so smart') and the complaints about the upcoming reunion and the apparent horror of the anticipated relatives. That lasted on and off for five hours. He also complained about the food, the drinks and the time everything was taking. Also, the landscape. "Why are we here in the middle of nowhere where NO-ONE even wants to live?" I heard from the back seat.
We got to the reunion and he was immediately happy. There were kids! He wore his suit! He got to watch TV! And stay up!
His change of mood made me think that perhaps it might not be so bad on the way home. But I was wrong. He complained, whinged, fought, insulted and generally filled up the airwaves with negativity from the time we packed the car to the time we got out of it, eight hours later.
It was a very long day. And I was utterly furious.
I post his insults on Facebook mostly to make myself laugh about just how hilarious they would sound if I wasn't so personally involved. Yesterday's was this:
"7 hours stretching out in front of me. The kid in the back just called me an irrational bogus bossy pants moron.
"Do you want a piece of fruit?" I asked.
"I don't want anything from *you*," he said.
Gonna be a long day."
Someone asked me how I dealt with it and I wasn't sure what to say. I guess I try not to take it personally, but it's hard when everything directed at me is basically saying, "You're terrible". I try to remember that his fight/flight response comes out as mostly fighting - and mostly verbal fighting, which I guess I can be grateful for. I mean, he could be pulling knives, I suppose. Unfortunately for him, and for us all, his fear stimulus that brings out the fight/flight response is hair-trigger sensitive. What should be a mildly annoying experience - a long car trip - turns into a massive deal for him. I think he is genuinely afraid of travel or going somewhere new.
The biggest problem for me is that he doesn't do this at school. He can control himself. It's at home and with us that he has meltdowns that would rival a tsunami. Sometimes when I tell him to behave himself, he will. Other times, it's like I push him over the edge. Everything gets magnified about 100 times and the meltdown goes on for hours longer. It depends on the level of anxiety he's feeling at the time and it's difficult to know when I can raise my expectations and have him regulate himself, and when I just have to go with the flow and focus on helping him to calm down.
At home this morning, after a good night's sleep he was happy. He also apologised to me for being rude yesterday. So I took the opportunity to have a long, deliberate conversation with him about fear and anxiety and his flight/flight response. Yes, he understood it. Yes, he agreed with me that calming down and using 'I feel' words was always going to be better than using insults. He agreed that he felt scared of travelling, and that talking about all the good things on the trips could help, so that he was prepared for everything to come. He also saw my logic when I said that there was going to be no more hiding in cupboards and refusing to get in the car. There would be a consequence if he did it, and a reward if he didn't.
The question is: what will happen next time we go away? Will we be able to prepare him for what's to come? Will we be able to practice using feeling words and self-calming? Will he get out of the cupboard? Will he get in the car? Will he be able to calm down en route? Will we be subjected to the continual verbal abuse? I really just don't know.