Even good experiences can contribute to overload.

Even good experiences can contribute to overload.

By Rosie and Jo’s mum.

It took me a while to get my head round these two ideas:

1. My daughters can be enjoying activities that they have chosen to engage in, want to carry on with and benefit from in many ways while still feeling stressed and overloaded by them.

Playing with friends at the park after school is a great way for other children to wind down but for us it didn’t help. In fact the end-of -chool meltdown would be worse if it had to wait until after a visit to the park.

Going swimming is fun and she might never want to get out of the pool but, if there is more than a handful of other people in there, we have to limit the length of the session to avoid tears in the changing room.

Spending time with cousins who you don’t see often is a pleasure that is also utterly exhausting.

The run up to Christmas in school is always difficult because the parties, panto trips, special assemblies, presents, carol services, decorations, sweets, treats and dressing up may be fun but they are also disruptive to routine, unpredictable, offer sensory challenges and change people’s behaviour patterns. That adds up to a huge amount of stress.

2. You need to plan where to accept the stress and work out where to avoid it.

Getting dressed and organising your school bag without adult support, even if age-appropriate, can make it harder to cope with the transition into school.

If there’s a friend’s party in the afternoon, you don’t spend the morning shopping.

If you want to have a conversation about how things are going in school after dinner, make dinner something familiar that she likes to eat.

A top with sleeves that are a little bit tight might mean she can’t concentrate on her reading book.

A bad day at school might mean he needs to wear comfy joggers instead of jeans in the evening.

Don’t plan new shoes, a trip to CAMHS and a day out all in one week.

Rosie has been learning this herself over the last few weeks. She is at university. She has a part time job which she adores, a couple of lovely hobbies and a small, supportive friendship group. On top of her coursework, each of these aspects of her life take their toll on her energy and ability to cope.

In her first year at university, she carried on the routine established at home of planning down time and limiting activities to avoid doing too much at once. This year, she decided that she would like some more money and could cope with a job. Like plenty of other students, advice from mum is now taken with a pinch of salt, the downtime has gone by the wayside, the pull of pizza and film nights with friends has become stronger and the course workload has increased.

This has led to a series of meltdowns, some missed lectures, health issues that aren’t resolving and significant anxiety symptoms. We’ve spent a few hours on Facetime and the phone, written some emails together, worked out a more manageable routine and, fingers crossed, she is now back on track.

When I asked her if I should have been more bossy, she said no. If I had told her that she was making this mistake, she would have been determined to prove me wrong and it would all have been harder. “I had to learn from this mistake myself” she said.

It’s helpful when school staff can understand these ideas too.

I’ve often encountered surprise from a teacher because I’m telling them that an activity my child seemed to enjoy contributed to distress I saw at home later.

Running around in the playground isn’t necessarily a good way for a child with Asperger’s to spend their lunchtime. They don’t need more social interaction – the classroom is a very socially interactive place these days. Some quiet time in the library or tidying up the classroom are probably more likely to help an overwhelmed child relax and be able to concentrate in the afternoon.

Yes, she probably did seem pleased by the surprise visit from the magician but the meltdown after school was still the result of the stress it caused.

She might really enjoy maths but she is still worried about making a mistake and the lessons make her anxious.

If she’s had a cover teacher in the morning, endured an extra noisy assembly and the rain drove lunchtime play indoors, she is unlikely to be able to concentrate on a demanding task in the afternoon.

I’ve seen these ideas explained in various ways; The Spoon Theory being one and the ‘stress bucket’ which is filled by all the challenges you face. If there are too many challenges without enough recovery in between to drain the bucket, at some point there will be a challenge that makes the bucket overflow and that’s when the meltdown occurs.

Jo uses this strategy now – she imagines a stress bucket in her head with a little duck floating on it.  These days, the duck turns red as a warning sign that the bucket is about to overflow.  That is one very useful little duck.

So what can we learn from this – planning is everything maybe?

Each day we wake up with a certain amount of personal resource and we need to think about how we spend it. Sometimes the amount we wake up with varies. Some people rarely run out and others find it limits their life significantly. If we and the other adults in their lives can become consciously aware of this, it might help our children to enjoy life and the opportunities that others take for granted and reduce their social isolation.

With our support, over time, our children can take on more of the responsibility for this so that, as they enter adulthood, they understand what helps them and plan their own lives accordingly.

If you like the poster checkout http://www.thelittleblackduck.com.au for more!


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5 thoughts on “Even good experiences can contribute to overload.

  1. Thanks for this. I find the balance between my children tricky. One requires down time usually at the point that the other requires burn off some energy time… But this post reminds me why even fun things can be tough!


  2. Teachers need to understand this – my sons teachers are having meltdowns and effing in front of him! I’m worried now because one of his swearing teachers is leaving this week so probably feels she doesn’t have to be nice to him anymore, resorting to being horrid and swearing! I’ve warned him to let me know if she touches a hair on his head – I’ll be up that school before she leaves!!!


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