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Mother of All Meltdowns: “My Son Tried to Hurt Himself”

When ADHD teens lose emotional control, their meltdowns can be scary for their parents – and themselves – read how one mother coped with self harm.

It was a balmy March afternoon. My son, Ricochet, had not been in school for a week. An ice storm froze our town in place several days earlier. He had four snow days this week already. While Ricochet thinks every day should be a snow day because he doesn’t like school, the monotony of being home for so many days weighed heavily on us all.

I focused on my work for much of those days (there are no snow days for work-at-home moms), while Ricochet spent a lot of time playing on his computer. It won’t win me a mother of the year award, I know, but sending him outside to play in sub-zero temperatures wouldn’t either.

This particular day had moved along fine, pretty much a mirror image of the three days before. I had no cause for concern. Ricochet was pleasant and content-until Daddy came home.

Ricochet and his Daddy are too alike. Their inflexibility and emotional reactivity fuel the other’s fiery traits. What happened was a case in point.

Daddy came in, put his keys on the hook and his coffee mug in the kitchen sink. He kicked his shoes off and burrowed into the couch to relax and warm up. Five minutes later, I heard him screech Ricochet’s name-his full name, which meant trouble.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children]

Next thing I knew, Ricochet ran to me, sobbing as he plopped down on the chair next to me. Through his whimpers I discerned, “Daddy took away my whole allowance. It’s not fair!”

“Why did Daddy take away your allowance?” I asked calmly. I figured Ricochet raided Daddy’s secret stash of cookies or bought something online without permission, although we have created new passwords to stop that.

Ricochet took a deep breath to get the words out between sobs. “I bought a game on my computer.”

“How?” I wondered aloud.

“In Daddy’s game account. It didn’t ask for a password,” he said. “I am so stupid!”

[Free Parenting Resource: Manage Your Child’s Anger]

I quickly squashed the thought that he was “stupid.” My kid is not stupid, and I’m not going to let him think that poor impulse control means he is.

I kept trying to reassure him, but his brain had been hijacked by his disappointment, anger, and frustration. His actions were no longer within his control. He cried. He yelled. He threw pillows across the room.

I knew nothing I said was going to make it better. There was no reasoning with him. He was deep in meltdown mode.

So I decided to walk away. Letting the emotions play out is often the only way to bring about calm. When he realized I wasn’t going to engage any more, he ran into his bedroom and slammed and locked the door. I followed him and demanded he unlock it. When he refused, I got the key and unlocked it myself, only to find him throwing everything on his bed at the window. I reminded him to take deep breaths to calm himself down and walked away again.

It was quiet for five or 10 minutes and then I heard a choking cough. I jumped up and bolted toward him, terrified. Had he tried to hurt himself? Had he succeeded? My fear was overwhelming as I ran into his bedroom.

“Ricochet! Are you OK? What is going on?” I asked.

He raised his head from the bed, looked at me with sad eyes, and answered softly, “I hurt myself.”

Ricochet had punched himself and gripped his throat tight. While he had inflicted pain on himself, it wasn’t the kind of self-harm I had feared when I heard that faint cough. We sat together and talked for a while, discussing better ways to handle anger. I explained to him that he should always talk to someone right away if he feels the urge to harm himself. I vowed to myself that I would watch more closely the next time he slid into meltdown.

My sweet little boy wasn’t himself in that hour of overwhelming emotion-his brain had been hijacked. As painful as it is, there’s nothing a momma of a special needs child can do but offer a safe haven and wait out those storms.

[When She’s Too Angry to Speak]