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Having A Meltdown!

Panic prepares the way for transition.

Fifteen-year-old Annie sits with me and howls, gasping for breath, tears all over her face, not bothering to use the tissues in front of her. “Why?” she wails. “Why? Why?” Normally articulate, her fifteen-year-old words have been replaced by primitive sounds of bewilderment, fear, frustration. “Why?” She wants to know why people behave towards her as they do.

I could say, “Because that’s what people are like, Annie. Sometimes they don’t understand and don’t think. They don’t realize that what they’re saying affects other people.” I could say this but, right now, it would be pointless. She wouldn’t hear. So I say nothing. I sit with her and wait.

She’s having what young people would describe as a ‘meltdown’ when everything seems impossible and a young person regresses, temporarily younger. Annie may be fifteen years old but at the moment seems like a fifteen-month-old child, howling.

She’s about to take some exams. Typically, meltdowns happen at transitional moments in a young person’s life, when some challenge has to be faced and the young person is suddenly scared. Something similar happens on a much smaller scale every day when the alarm clock goes off and the young person pulls the duvet tighter, temporarily hoping for a reprieve. Then gets up and gets on with the day. Nietsche points out that whenever someone has to take a big leap forwards, they always prepare by taking a few steps backwards.

In this sense, meltdowns are inevitable: the greater the challenge, the greater the fear and likelihood of a young person regressing. Faced with this behaviour, the danger is that adults over-react, imagining that the tearful wreck sobbing in front of them is a young person falling to bits, spiralling into irreversible psychosis. Adults often panic. Or get angry. Or run from the situation. Through the unconscious wonders of projective identification, they often end up feeling precisely what the young person is feeling: full of panic and anger themselves, feeling like running away. A young person ‘in meltdown’ easily taps into an adult’s own suppressed need to melt down, to despair, to give up. Adults readily pick up these feelings and enact them on behalf of the young person rather than staying calm and trusting that the moment will pass.

Annie’s meltdown is actually a kind of progress. She’s maintained a super-competent, super-confident, super-intellectual appearance for years. It could never last and now she’s got some catching up to do, re-integrating all the difficult, childlike feelings she’d banished from her life. Her meltdown is the start of this process.

She dries her eyes and looks up, smiling weakly. We agree that people can be horrible sometimes and that life, for all its wonders, is scary. And that we’ll meet again next week.

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