Dear Fellow Shoppers,
Thank you in advance for your patience and understanding.
As you walk carefree down the aisles grabbing the items on your list, I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Yes, I am aware that my child is yelling and hitting and appears to be misbehaving in every way possible. Yes, I realize that the decibel at which he is screaming is likely making you feel very physically and emotionally uncomfortable. Yes, I understand that I am in the middle of Target with my screaming child and you are trying to enjoy your shopping trip, especially if this is the only time that you’ll have to yourself today. You might be thinking that I have no control over my child and that I’m a bad parent. You might even wonder if perhaps I’m trying to kidnap him. Maybe you’re wondering if or how you can help. Or, maybe you’re not thinking any of those things, but just wish the screaming would stop.
So, what’s going on and why is my child “losing it”? My son is having a hard time. The store’s lights are too bright; the people nearby talking plus the sound of the wheels on the cart and the hum of the freezers are all too loud; the way his shoes feel on his feet are making him uncomfortable; the fragrance from the candles in the next aisle is overwhelmingly strong. So, when I turned right instead of left at the end of the aisle like he had anticipated, his body and brain could no longer “keep it together”. His nervous system went into a state of full-fledged dysregulation. The screaming, hitting, and other “misbehaviors” you’re seeing are his body’s way of letting me know that he is in fight or flight mode. This isn’t a tantrum. He’s not trying to get me to do something by acting a certain way. He is not in control of his reaction. My son’s body is responding to the right turn as a “threat” and is trying to protect itself. While you and I wouldn’t consider turning right a “threat”, his nervous system is in a state of dysregulation and can’t tell the difference. All behavior is communicating an unmet need or underdeveloped skill. In this case, both. His nervous system needs help getting back to a regulated state, and he has not yet mastered doing that skill on his own.
As you continue to push your cart past us, you see a loud and thrashing child. A child that doesn’t outwardly appear disabled. A child that looks old enough to be able to keep his emotions in check. Some passersby stare, while others make comments under their breath. You might think I don’t notice, but I do. I pretend not to see the stares and hear the comments, but after five years, they still punch me in my gut. You’d think after experiencing daily meltdowns like this, I’d be used to it, but my mama heart continues to hurt with each one. I wish I could explain to you that he’s having a hard time; that his body is completely overwhelmed. I wish you could see the progress he’s made from the hundreds of hours of occupation therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy he’s received since he was a baby. I wish I could show you the never-ending research, and advocating, and specialist appointments, and therapy sessions, and school meetings we work as a family to coordinate, sometimes while the rest of the world is sleeping. I wish the tears, fears, struggles, triumphs, smiles, and laughter we’ve experienced with our son made up for the dysregulated meltdown currently occurring in the middle of this crowded store. I wish I didn’t have to worry about what everyone around me is thinking and the judgments they may or may not be making. (I know I don’t have to worry about this, but because of my upbringing, I am very aware of and concerned by the potential of negatively impacting those around me.)
While I wish I could explain all of that to you in the moments it takes for you to pass us, I don’t wish that the meltdowns would just stop. I don’t wish that my son was different than he is now. I don’t wish that we could leave the house without feeling like we’re walking on eggshells. Why? Because with each meltdown comes an opportunity to provide a sense of safety and security for my child. His nervous system is in fight or flight. His mind and body are reacting to turning right instead of left the same way someone might if they were camping and encountered a bear. You might be thinking that that’s ridiculous, that there’s no way his nervous system would be reacting the same as if there was a bear in front of him. But it is. His body is feeling the same physical sensations as if there was a bear in front of him. And it does nearly every moment of every day. Can you imagine living in that state of stress every waking moment as a five year old? How exhausting. So yes, it appears that my son is misbehaving. But, in our family, our goal is regulation over compliance; safety instead of control.
We foster-adopted our son. From the moment he was conceived, he has experienced trauma after trauma. Exposure to illicit substances in utero, traumatic and unexpected birth, neglect in the first days of life, and living in a foster home until he moved in with us at a little over one month of age. It’s no surprise that his brain and body continually react the way that they do. That doesn’t make it any less difficult, but it does bring me comfort. I get to be his safe space. I get to help his brain and body understand that not everything is a threat. I get to witness the amazing progress he has and will continue to make each day as he grows up. Our days are long and loud and usually involve tears (from him, me, or both), but I wouldn’t change it for the world. What a beautiful gift it is to be able to walk by my son’s side through life, to advocate for his acceptance, and do everything within my power to be his safe space.
So, thank you fellow shopper, for your patience and understanding.
This article was written by Sarah Mercado. Follow her on Instagram @mixedplateohana.