A few weeks ago, I was describing one of my daughter’s meltdowns — a particularly gruesome one — to my therapist, when she looked at me kindly and said these words: “Jody, focus on compassion during her meltdowns.”
At the time, I kind of wanted to ask her whether she was high. My daughter has autism, and there are days (like the one I was describing) where it takes every ounce of compassion I possess to remain calm enough not to lose my shit. Her meltdowns aren’t just tantrums, they are Grade-A, bonafide shitshows, and she needs me to hug her and comfort her as soon as they pass. Right after she’s just spent up to 30 minutes screaming, hitting, kicking, or even biting. The only way that I’ve managed to successfully remain calm through these meltdowns is to detach myself from her emotions. That detachment is how I am able to treat her compassionately in the midst of chaos.
As time went on, however, I kept coming back to my therapist’s words. Was there something wrong with detaching like that? After the meltdown passes, safely in the confines of my therapist’s office, should I re-focus myself on compassion instead of venting my frustration? And what does it mean to focus on compassion when someone is screaming at you like a banshee, anyway?
After plenty of deliberation, I’ve come to a few conclusions: 1. Therapists without children of their own probably shouldn’t offer parenting advice, 2. Therapists without children on the autism spectrum definitely shouldn’t offer parenting advice directly related to autism, and 3. Fuck that noise.
For all of the touchy-feely awesomeness of the idea of “focusing on compassion,” there are moments in life when it’s simply not practical. One of those moments is when it takes every last bit of internal fortitude simply to survive. Later, perhaps, it is helpful to re-focus on compassion for your child’s experience, but it is equally (if not even more!) important to acknowledge and process your ownfeelings about the experience, too. No good comes from stuffing down your feelings and focusing entirely on your child’s needs, and the reality is that parenting requires us to achieve a balance between ourselves and our children. If I acknowledge my own frustration, anger, and sometimes even grief, then I am able to come to terms with it and release it. That makes me a happier person and a healthier, more effective parent. Reminders to “focus on compassion” imply that there is something negative about feeling our feelings as parents, and that’s just plain bullshit.
I’m a big fan of compassion, and I incorporate it into many areas of my life — including parenting. But, at the same time, I think it’s possible to treat someone with compassion without actually feeling a whole lot of compassion. In fact, in the midst of those meltdowns, I behave with compassion by gritting my teeth, detaching from the emotional turbulence, and riding out the meltdown. I exhibit compassion when I greet my daughter with arms wide open when the meltdown has ended. No matter how exhausted, frustrated, or even angry I feel, what matters most is how I behave, and that is what I hope to teach my children.