Reader-Submitted Question: Helping autistic tween with explosive emotional reactions

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The Aspergian often gets user-submitted questions, and instead of answering them in email individually, we thought it might be helpful to publish some as articles.  The following question has been edited to ensure anonymity.

My autistic daughter has recently been reacting explosively to what can be harmless stimuli.  She is a tween entering puberty, and I’m sure that is responsible for some of her emotional ups and downs.

When someone says something she doesn’t like, or even if they start to speak, she becomes angry, covers her ears, swears, stomps, or storms off.  Often, once she’s calmed down, she will confide that she expected we were going to tell her something much more extreme than what we were going to say.

Instead of assuming I was going to remind her to do her homework before video games, she would assume that I was going to say she wasn’t allowed to play games at all.  Her reactions can come before anyone has said anything and she just assumes they might.  How can I help her and get us through this tough spot?

-Alice, 42, Rhode Island

From Harriet Fletcher:

Parent of a 12 year old autistic girl here!

There is a great book called “What’s happening to Ellie?” which deals with puberty and periods Inc the need for hygiene. It is very clear and concise.  Perhaps school could suggest it to her?

Explosive reactions: the CPS (collaborative problem solving) approach by Dr Ross Greene in The Explosive Child book rocks. Have a look for his website called “Lives in the Balance”

Anxiety will be playing a huge role here. So focus on what is certain, in the midst of all the uncertainty. Together with what she can do, strategies and techniques to “self soothe” as soon as she starts to feel a bit anxious. We use a scale of 1-5, 5 being full-on meltdown. We encourage her to self soothe at 2.5

From Autistic Science Lady:

It sounds like she’s generalizing negative tone/body language and assuming she’s going to be punished for doing something. I was super anxious around that age and assumed everyone thought everything was my fault.

I didn’t want to talk because I was worried my parents would critique me (like example “you should shower more” or other things that would seem like constructive comments by parents, but felt super intrusive and shaming to me).

From Myk:

Oh man, the catastrophizing and reactivity hits really close to home for me. I think I learned a horrible coping mechanism for this when I was a kid, and I unlearned it as an adult. Sadly, that left me with the same problem again, but now I’m in my mid-30s and married.

So here’s the one thing that has helped me more than almost anything else: whenever someone says something that triggers me into feeling horribly defensive, when I want to storm out or get upset, I first force myself to say: “I am hearing you say XYZ…”

Often, even just saying that out loud allows me, myself, to realize that I’m projecting negativity. But that doesn’t mean I’m always “wrong”– it just means that sometimes I hear something other than what is being said because I’m processing it along channels that they’re not considering or I’m applying weights to words differently.

By restating what I hear them saying two things happen: (1) it forces me to understand exactly what it is that I’m reacting to, which is not always obvious to me, and (2) it helps highlight the fact that this is often actually a communication breakdown that can be addressed through kind, patient clarification.

“I’m hearing you say…” forces me to articulate what I’m actually upset about in those cases where a miscommunication has somehow triggered me, but it’s also been proving useful more generally in communication. It turns out that I often hear something other than what the person intends, and vice versa. Try adopting this behavioral pattern!

There are some more philosophical perspectives that I would add on to what other Aspergians have suggested.

Autistic people don’t perceive the same ranks and hierarchies as neurotypical people, and so they don’t see as many degrees of separation between themselves and their parents, teachers, and other authority figures.

And this is one way that neurotypical intuition will fail parents.  The things that NTs naturally are wired to do as parents, friends, partners, etc. work beautifully with other NTs but not always with autistics.

So, the intuition to be an authority figure and establish the right boundaries might be the right degree of authority and boundaries for a neurotypical child, but might not be suitable for an autistic child.

Many autistic children are dedicated, to an extreme degree, about doing the right things exactly the right way.  This is an infinitely-disheartening way to exist when they feel like they can’t get anything right and society reinforces those ideas.  The resultant anxiety over this is total and all-encompassing, and is compounded by the hormonal imbroglio of puberty.

With most autistic children, letting go of the traditional parenting role– which might work well with neurotypical children– and taking on more of the role of emotional confidant and more-experienced-and-sage friend can make a world of difference.

You see meltdowns and explosive emotions when the demands on a child exceed their capacity to handle those demands.

As an adult, this same dynamic can often play out between my mother and me, though I’m now better at containing my emotions.  She can’t fathom how badly I need downtime after sensory and social overload, and I am incapable of being spontaneous.

She’s bored, or she sees that something needs to be done, and I’m just there existing or looking at my phone.  To her, she is thinking, “This would be a great time to go do something fun,” or “We should work on sorting this stack of papers.”

Her intentions are great.  She thinks that I’ll get a second wind, a recharge, from doing something productive.  But, as soon as she begins to ask a question, even if I just think she’s gearing up to do something and enlist me in whatever it is, I am beyond stressed.

But the last time she came to visit me, she did something I considered a breakthrough.  She always wanted to help me, but her brand of help distressed me.  She really didn’t know what was best for me before, but she has started to get it (now that I’m 38).

She said, “How about your dad and I take the baby and go to the park while you get some work done?”

I wept with gratitude, not so much because of the specific offering, but because she had finally empathized with me.  She saw how hard I was trying, and how difficult it was for me to be so out of routine having guests and entertaining, working from home, and parenting.  She gave me the gift of downtime.

It signaled to me that she got it.  She understood.  She had finally stopped trying to push me into being more productive and realized that relieving some of my burdens was the best way she could help me and support me.

The truth is, my brain is not meant for the level of variety, responsibility, and demand of the broader world.   I work hard, but I don’t change gears quickly and tend to do one task for hours and hours.  I can’t do a big list of tiny chores, though.  The transitions overwhelm me, especially if they involve being social.

Your daughter’s social world is changing dramatically as priorities shift a lot during and after puberty.  She’s entering a new stage of development where she begins to need more independence and control of her own life, but it’s probably frustrating her that she can’t be more independent and self-reliant.

Her friends are all changing, forming cliques, and doing different things.  Her body is changing, and if she has sensory processing issues, she might not be able to understand how she’s changing or put it in words.  It’s like flying blind through a storm.

As a mom, I know what it’s like to not know where the line is between trying to foster enough responsibility and enabling laziness.  I’m sure it’s hard to tell where her thresholds are for what is more than she can handle, too.  She might not even know yet, and that leaves you flying blind in a storm, too.

One thing that has helped me to prioritize, as a parent and as an autistic person who struggles to be “enough” while being under-equipped with the executive function to meet all the demands I need to meet, is to ask, “Is this going to matter in two weeks?”  If the answer is “no,” then I can forgive myself for the moment not going ideally.

I use the same question for lots of things.  Will that screaming tantrum matter in two weeks?  Will doing the dishes right now?  Will that note from school?  The way I am feeling in that moment?  That my husband was snappy with me?  That I was late for a meeting? If it won’t matter in two weeks, it doesn’t matter much in the moment.

Because it’s okay to not be able to do it all or get it all right, for you and for your daughter.

We hope these tips are helpful and that you’ll stayed tuned in to The Aspergian.


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