Looking back, I am so amazed at my level of awareness to surroundings. I knew being in public meant needing to put forth as much effort to be “good.” I distinctly remember being on my best behavior with relatives visiting, trying to smile and be happy. Once they left, my attitude changed almost instantly. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to just stay happy.
It’s also why in high school I termed this phenomenon “being two-faced.” I was pleasant, trying to be as easy-going as possible at school and then all the emotions and irritations were let loose at home.
I understand now why I had so much difficulty transitioning from elementary school to the house. And why it resulted in a meltdown. All day long at school my senses were being assaulted. I was absorbing so much that irritated me and annoyed me. All of it got absorbed internally because I had enough awareness to know that blowing up at school would draw attention to me, and I didn’t need that (giraffe wanting to be chameleon, remember?). I had enough trouble making friends, and I knew being extra difficult and emotional wasn’t going to win me points.
If I could help it, the frustration was getting held in. I had no strategies for releasing some of this tension during the day. (A very important point! To be addressed in another entry.)
It all got internalized. Trying to follow along with all the instructions and processing what was expected of me. Working hard to follow through with the directions. Unnecessary touching while walking in lines. Extra noises that were distracting. All day long.
So when I got into the car with Mom, I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained. The difference is now I finally was in a safe space. I longed for time by myself. I wanted to hide in my bedroom. But Mom wanted to know about my day.
Now, as an adult, I can be grateful for a parent who showed authentic interest in my day. She wasn’t going through the motions; she really wanted to know! But I couldn’t deal with it. Not in the car. Not at that moment. And for whatever reason I couldn’t vocalize the request to be left alone. I couldn’t get those words out of my mouth.
So she would start with the usual “How was your day?” Looking back, I see it as an extremely loaded question. Where do you really begin to answer? It’s way too broad. I’d say “fine” or “ok.”
She’d try a different approach, asking if a certain friend was at school. Most kids would probably get excited to talk about their friends or detail the fun things that happened at lunch or recess. I didn’t have those stories. It just made me more annoyed. I remember thinking “What difference does it make whether someone else was at school today?” And I would continue to grow in agitation.
Then Mom tried another question, determined to learn something. Determined to try to draw me out and engage me in conversation. She was probably thinking this was her opportunity to help me work on those social skills. Nope. I would explode. “Shut up!” “Stop talking!” Or I might have finally been able to get out “Leave me alone!” Mom would be stunned and confused by the outburst. And hurt that her interest in me was met with anger. I would be thoroughly upset. We’d finally get to the house, and I would lock myself in my room, finally alone to unwind and recharge.
I might seek refuge in hugging my stuffed animals. Or screaming into the pillow. Or venturing into my brother’s room to say hello and pet the guinea pig.
I’d emerge from my room for a snack or dinner. Dinner was by far a more appropriate time to ask about my day. By this time, I think Mom had given up a little, so it was Dad’s turn to ask me questions. At this point, I was much more willing to talk, and I’d even answer the same questions Mom tried to ask earlier. This just aggravated Mom; I don’t think it made sense to her why Dad was lucky enough to get the positive reaction.
I needed the time immediately after school to cool off. But we were constantly stuck in the loop that car time meant questions. Mom didn’t seem to pick up on the idea that car conversations weren’t going to happen. (Bless you, Mom, for trying to treat each day as its own day!) She kept trying to engage, and I kept pushing away.
Here are 25 alternate ways to ask your child “How was your day?” I think the variations would have helped with some of the aggravation. It also helps narrow down the focus, trying to evaluate the school day in a specific way. I think #14 (Tell me something good that happened today), while admittedly not in the form of a question, would have been a great mental exercise to look for something positive from the day. Especially since I was more inclined to focus on the negative. (Some things are hard to change, but I’m working on it!)
Another alternative might have been using the car ride for some quiet time or maybe playing some instrumental music. Mom and I might have disagreed on the kind of music to have playing (her choices may have seemed too cheerful and “perky”), but something instrumental might have been soothing. A chance to let the mind wander and decompress.
But I also think all of this shows a missed opportunity to address the need to calmly vocalize irritations. Once I had the outburst, I don’t remember it ever really being addressed later. I think that was a mistake. There should have been time for me to calm down, yes, but then after a little bit, we should have talked about why I yelled. In a non-confrontational way, ask about what was upsetting. And teach me it’s ok to say “I need time to myself” before I reach the point of yelling. Or maybe some other phrase. Whatever works for the particular situation.
Then the hard part: That behavior needs to be reinforced! Acknowledge that the request has been made. Acknowledge that your child has vocalized that something is bothering her or irritating her or that she needs quiet time. Acknowledge it and, to the best of your ability, observe it.
And if the circumstances prevent you from removing the irritation, then gently explain that. “I’m sorry that the grocery story is really noisy and you’re bothered by the sounds. We’ll try to make this trip quick.” Ok that sounds really formal and a bit cheesy, but I think being heard and acknowledged are an important part of the process.
NOTE: Two-Face is an incredibly creepy super villain that Batman faced. What’s more, it’s a very disturbing comparison to make for yourself. I’m well aware that my perception of the past is colored much darker than most people remember. Whether or not my view is accurate isn’t really the point. The important thing is recognizing that these are in fact the ways I have characterized myself for quite some time. And these aren’t healthy self-images to have. But it’s good to go back and revisit these situations to show adult Lindsay her self-image needs to soften up quite a bit.
PS: Here’s a great article to distinguish between a tantrum and a sensory overload meltdown.