Why Special Needs Kids Are Like Traffic Jams

by Cristina Margolis
A lot of cars in a line during a traffic jam

Recently, I was stuck in a traffic jam on my way to drop my daughter off at preschool. Cars were backed up on the main road that leads to the school, and police were directing traffic to another road. My first thought when I saw the flashing lights was, Oh, great! Now my daughter is going to be late to school, and I’m going to be late to work. Quite simply, I was annoyed.

When I dropped off my daughter, I apologized to her teacher for being late and explained what happened. She then informed me that there had been a house fire down the road, and the house burned down. There was nothing left. In that moment, I felt sick to my stomach. My worries shifted from my own inconveniences—which suddenly seemed trivial and selfish—to the family who lived in the home. I began to wonder: Did they make it out OK? Do they have somewhere to go? How could I have been so self-centered? Until then, I’d only considered how the traffic jam affected me. Instead of feeling compassion and understanding, I was only reacting with annoyance and anger. That’s when it hit me: My child is like a traffic jam.

My daughter has ADHD, and she has at least one big meltdown a day. These meltdowns can be a result of any number of things: becoming frustrated with her homework, making a mistake while jumping rope, or not wanting to sit still in her chair at a restaurant. Practically anything can trigger a meltdown for a young child with ADHD. These meltdowns are the way they deal with their often overwhelming emotions.

I used to get angry with my daughter when she had a meltdown. I would react by yelling things like, “Stop it! You are too old to be having temper tantrums!” If we were in public when one would happen, I would feel embarrassed. Being acutely aware of the glares from other parents—who looked at my daughter and me with judgment and sometimes disgust—I would try as calmly as I could to distract my daughter with a game on my phone to calm her. Sometimes, the distraction worked, and sometimes, it didn’t, but one thing is for sure, I was going about it the wrong way.

Instead of acknowledging my daughter’s negative feelings when she could not control her emotions, I was quickly trying to hide them and, worst of all, deny them. I’m not happy all the time, so why do I expect my child to be? It’s normal to feel sad, frustrated and angry sometimes. And when you have ADHD, these feelings are 10 times more difficult to process. As adults, we may resolve our negative feelings by talking about them with someone close to us. Others exercise or read a book. However we cope, we usually feel a lot better afterward.

Children, on the other hand, are still learning how to soothe themselves. Some can’t even pin down what emotion they experiencing at times, so you can imagine their frustration when we ask them, “What’s wrong?” They can’t answer us, because they don’t even know what it is. Because I understand that now, I no longer try to hide or deny my daughter’s negative emotions. When she is having a meltdown, my responsibility as her mother is to acknowledge what she is truly feeling, calmly talk about it with her and help her find a solution to the problem. If she sees that I am cool, calm and collected, she is more likely to be too.

That’s all fine and dandy for my daughter and me, but it’s a different story when other people are involved. When we are in public and people see my daughter having a meltdown, they look at her as if she is a traffic jam. They get annoyed and sometimes even angry. Perhaps a couple in the middle of a nice romantic dinner out is seated next to my family at a restaurant. All could be well, but if it is taking too long for the food to arrive and my daughter is having a difficult time doing the word search on her kids’ menu, it could trigger a meltdown for my now very hungry and frustrated daughter.

When the screaming and crying begins, the couple may glare at us and judge my daughter for “being a brat” and me for “not controlling my child.” While they didn’t expect a traffic jam during their dinner, they found themselves stuck right in the middle of one—in the form of a little girl. Like me when I faced a literal traffic jam, they didn’t consider what caused it, and understandably, that is the reason for their lack of compassion and understanding. Their immediate concern was that their dinner had been interrupted (and, from their perspective, probably ruined). But if the couple understood the cause of the traffic jam, what was really going on in my daughter’s mind and in her life, for that matter, they would have more compassion for her. The judgments would stop.

As a parent of a special needs child, I ask you to please don’t be so quick to judge others. Please don’t treat special needs children as if they are traffic jams. In these situations, there is so much more than meets the eye, and unless you know the child personally, you probably don’t have the slightest idea of what is really going on with them. There is always a cause for a traffic jam. Instead of being annoyed or angry with the child, think of what may have caused the meltdown. Practice compassion. Both the child and their parents would appreciate it more than you could ever know.

If you happen to know the parents personally and want to offer them advice, please refrain from doing so. I don’t meant to sound rude, but only they know what is best for their child and what works for them. They are the only ones who should be doing the traffic control. That doesn’t mean you should shut them out though. Parents of special needs children need all the help and support they can get. Let the parents know you are there for them, but let it be on their own terms.

Now that you have some insight into what it’s like for both a special needs child and their parents, you know what to do the next time you see a traffic jam, whether it is a metaphorical one or a real one. Rather than impatiently honk your car horn or angrily curse, pause and think about what the cause of the interruption may be. Have compassion. Have understanding. Turn on your car radio. I bet you’ll find a great song playing, and before you know it, traffic control will have everything back to normal. Then, drive on.