Friday, March 13, 2015

Stressful Fun

Q: My 15-year-old daughter can have a great fun family day and then predictably follow-up with a major meltdown. While I understand that these great times are also extremely stressful times, can you give me specific suggestions on how to prepare her for these fun times and manage these times better to avoid the meltdowns afterwards? 

A: Preparation ahead of time will help your daughter to create more safety and predictability around a fun event. At 15 years old, she is cognizant enough to be taught why this happens and how her system reacts to such events, even fun events.

Draw the graph of the Window of Stress Tolerance (See Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Volume 2 for an entire illustrated chapter on the Window of Stress Tolerance). Explain to her how these types of events can stress out her system. Help her to accept herself with the knowledge that these types of events with numerous people and lots of stimulation, are putting her in a place of overwhelm. She is simply reaching her breaking point.

Even though these events are fun, the fact remains that the environment is different, there are people she may not know, the activities may be new, and the location is unfamiliar. All of these variables are going to be a threat to her. This will require her to work exceptionally hard to maintain her regulation during the event. By the time she returns home from “fun,” her nervous system is overloaded and overextended. Thus, the “meltdown” becomes her only choice.

It is incredibly empowering to help a child understand why this happens and why her system is easily overwhelmed.

Additionally, give her as much information ahead of time as to what to expect. Is this a birthday party? Are you going to the bowling alley, to a park for a picnic, or over to an unfamiliar home? Who is going to be there? What is going to be happening? What kind of activities will she be asked to join into?

Help her in her mind’s eye to be able to create this new environment and to experience it ahead of time. Help her to walk through in advance as to what to expect and create a sense of familiarity with her. The goal is to decrease surprises and increase her sense of knowing.

Give your daughter a plan of action. At any time that she is at this event, invite and encourage her to come to you if she is feeling overwhelmed. Give her the permission to come to you and seek you for regulation. She needs this, even at 15 years old, because emotionally she is much younger. Give her the option of taking a break from the event. Jointly, you two can create an “escape” plan ahead of time.

Perhaps the plan is to go with her to the car and leave the event temporarily (reassuring her that she can go back when she is ready). You can help her to regulate by taking some deep breaths, listening to music, or talking and reconnecting within the context of your relationship with her, away from the event. Essentially, you’ll be giving her a “time-in” in order to return back to a state of calm and balance.

Interrupting the fun for just a few moments may be exactly what she needs in order not to reach her breaking point by the end of the event. Instead of a three-hour long party that taxes her nervous system to her meltdown edge, she will be able to take a break from the constant barrage of activity, regroup, reregulate, and maintain a stronger sense of balance throughout.

Relate this to your own experiences. Many of us absolutely need this type of interruption from intense activities, even as adults. If we are at a stimulating event, we naturally find ourselves taking a break outside, checking our phone, or disconnecting in some other way, momentarily, to regroup ourselves.

As a parent, we have to also realize that when we return home, as much as we do to help our children during the event, they might have to struggle. If you come back home and expect her to be okay, you are setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. She may not be able to come back home easily and comfortably, despite your best efforts.

Lower your expectations according to what is her normal and to what is her nervous system’s capability. If you are expecting her to come home and to be okay and she is not, then you have created a very large gap between her reality and your reality.

Press on and I hope you are able to have fun times, with minimal “aftermath.” We all deserve to have more fun in your families. So, be courageous and keep reintroducing joy back into your life!

Love never fails!

Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love
, and Help for Billy.

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