A Sensory Meltdown at the Ice Show: A Tale of Two Friends

On Saturday morning, C popped into my room, dragging her enormous stuffed bunny, clad in flannel pajamas.

“When do I skate in the show?  How many hours?” she asked, before I could even say good morning.

“Not until tonight,” I said.  “Not for ten more hours.”  The previous night, C had nearly exploded with joy during her performance.  I had videotaped the last 30 seconds of the song, but tonight I hoped to get the whole number.

C loves to ice skate.  She is a tiny three-year-old with a giant smile, and she literally runs across the ice with joy during her group’s number.    When we walk into the skating rink, she knows everyone – far more people than I know – and she scampers around with the big kids.  The older girls pick her up; their moms pick her up; she is always in someone’s arms.

The Spring Ice Show is a BIG deal for C.  She was visibly more excited about it than my first grader, who is a quieter presence both on and off the ice.

Our whole day was geared towards maximum happiness for the girls at that evening’s show.  We put C down for a late nap at 4 pm to ensure she would be in fine form at 8 pm when her group performed.

At 7:50 pm, C and her little buddies were lined up backstage, in the dark hall alongside the rink.  There is one other three-year-old in the group, Z, who stands next to C in line.  I am very good friends with Z’s mom, L, and we have spent hours laughing as we watch our baby girls lurch around at skating lessons.

The late hour and the dark and the noise had all combined to be too much for Z.

She began thrashing her arms back and forth.  Z was diagnosed this year with sensory processing disorder (SPD), which has been a challenge for her and her parents.  I am familiar with the way SPD manifests.  My friend L grew flustered and anxious when the other kids in line began to express irritation and frustration with Z’s thrashing.  But L hung in there, soothing her daughter, and then Z calmed down and seemed to settle.  I put my arms around L, who was shaken by the incident, and told her that we had been through similar things, too, and that she was doing a great job with Z.

It was now time for the tot group to move from the hallway into position on the ice, but they would still remain in the dark part of the ice behind the curtains.  Their number was about three songs away.  Parents are not allowed on the ice backstage, so I kissed C, took her coat and her skate guards, and headed into the arena to get ready to videotape her number.  C was giddy with excitement and gave me a thumbs up.  So many hours of waiting, all for a three-minute song!  I didn’t want to miss a minute of those toddler smiles and waves.

L stayed behind, slightly off the ice, where she could keep visual contact with Z and make sure she felt comfortable until the song began.  Like C, Z was very excited all day about the show and counted down the hours until it was time to perform.

Up in the stands, the song that comes right before our girls’ song was now playing, and I glanced over toward the backstage area.  I could see a commotion going on, and I saw someone holding a flailing little one.  Z must be upset again, I thought, and checked my watch to see if they would have time to calm her down before the number began.  I saw more commotion, and I looked again, and then I realized it was C who had been picked up.  I raced down the bleachers and ran onto the backstage ice.

“I’m so sorry; I’m so sorry,” L was telling me as I lifted a screaming C out of the arms of one of the coaches.  It took me a minute to ascertain that C was more scared than hurt.  She wrapped her arms and legs around me and clung and cried, refusing to let me put her down.  All she would say was “Z hurt me.”

Z and C are in the same preschool class.  Z’s Sensory Processing Disorder causes her to engage in sensory seeking behaviors, such as grabbing, pushing, and touching other kids.  She is not trying to be naughty; she is not trying to misbehave.  She is working on these behaviors with an occupational therapist, and her parents are amazing at intervening.  Our families are friends. When we hang out with Z and her mom, there are many times when Z starts grabbing C, and C climbs into my arms for refuge while Z’s mom reminds Z not to touch.  We create pro-social weekly lunches for the girls, and they look forward to our time together.

In reconstructing what happened, it sounds like Z began to engage in sensory-seeking behavior as the tots waited to skate.  She lashed out at C, who was unprepared.  It happened so fast, and it was dark and slippery, and I wasn’t there on the ice to scoop C up, and she freaked out.  But she was okay, not injured.  Z didn’t even seem to know what had happened, she watched C’s reaction to her sensory meltdown with curiosity.

At that moment, the music started for the tot number.  “It’s your song!” I told C.  “It’s here!  Do you want to skate?”  But she wouldn’t stop crying and clinging, not even when some of her favorite teenage girls came over and offered to carry her on ice or skate holding her hand.

The other girls, including little Z, went out to skate their number.

Everyone except C.  She didn’t go.

My friend L cried.  C cried.  I cried.  Within fifteen seconds, my phone began buzzing with texts from people in the audience.  “Where’s C?” Andrew was waiting in the stands, camera poised, and he grew alarmed when C never appeared.  My phone kept flashing, “Where’s C?  What happened to C?”  It was chaotic.

Finally, with about 20 seconds left in the song, C stopped crying and agreed to let two of her favorite coaches (one is a teenager who is both a student and a coach), lead her onto the ice, each of them on one side of her.  She appeared just in time to skate off with her group as the song ended.

Ten minutes later, a calmer C said to me, “Can I do my dance now?  I’m feeling better.”  She didn’t understand that it was too late; that her number was over, that she had missed it.  When I told her it was done, she climbed into my lap and cried.  “But I is waiting all day.  I want to do it now.”

People kept coming up to C and asking if she had gotten nervous or if she had stage fright, and she grew embarrassed and became more upset.  I tried to explain that she had gotten knocked into backstage right before her number, that she didn’t want people asking her if she had been afraid to skate.

My friend L was so distraught that she and her husband left and took Z home mid-show.  She texted me to say that they wanted C to feel safe enough to skate out for the curtain call, and they were worried that C wouldn’t go if Z were there.

I felt miserable the whole night.  I was sad about the situation.  At first, it was misery about C’s distress, but it soon morphed into misery for my poor friend, for her guilt and her stress and her exhaustion.  C would get over the missed performance, but Z and her family would have to continue to deal with SPD.  I was especially worried that my friend would misinterpret my unhappiness about the situation and think that I was mad at Z, or at her, which I truly was not.

So while I waited for my older daughter to skate in her number, I sent L a text, telling her it was only an ice show and to please not feel bad, because I care about her and Z.  The last thing I wanted was for my close friend to think our relationship had any issues.  She texted me back immediately, saying, “Can you imagine if it was a kid/parent that didn’t know Z so well?  I really hope C is okay.”

Then L asked me if I wanted them to keep Z home tomorrow, instead of having her perform at the final show, the Sunday matinee, so that C could have her moment to shine.  That was not what I wanted.

“I think they can both skate tomorrow!” I told her.  “We just need a plan, and we will talk to the people backstage about keeping the two of them comfortable.”

I slept badly, wondering how things would go the next day.  I called L in the morning, and she cried on the phone to me.  She and her husband were torn about whether or not to have Z try again, but ultimately, she said, “I think it is important for Z to have the repair.”  I couldn’t agree more.  "We can make it work," we told each other.  We texted throughout the day, checking in to see how each other's daughter was doing.

Prior to Sunday’s show, L and her husband did sensory feedback exercises with Z.  They kept her away from the over-stimulating backstage environment until the last minute.  I explained to the skating coaches that I needed to stay backstage on the ice with C until the last minute.  I’m sure they thought I was a crazy overprotective mom.  That’s okay.  This thing had to go right today, not just for C and me, but for Z and her mom.  It wasn’t about the skating anymore.  It was about friendship and restoration.  It was about parenting from a place of collaboration instead of judgment.  It was about open communication and empathy for each other’s kids.

As the girls prepared to go on, Z brought C a chocolate chip cookie and offered it as a peace offering.  C gobbled it down, leaving chocolate smears on her face, which I loved.  She smiled at Z.  L and I clasped hands, and we squeezed our fingers together hopefully.

Isabel, one of C’s favorite teenagers, and Noelle, one of the coaches, stayed with C and Z until the last possible second, distracting them and playing with them until the opening bars of music started for their song.

As Z and C skated into the light, L and I stood side by side, watching from the darkened ice behind the curtain.  Unlike the older performers in the ice show, our little ones didn't do any fancy jumps or spins, no complex choreography.  But we cheered as if they were in the Olympics.  “We did it!” L and I cried, hugging each other with joy, and we watched our babies skate.

This post was written with permission from Z's mom.  Many people misunderstand kids who have Sensory Processing Disorder and are quick to label them as poorly behaved.  We hope this story helps explain what SPD can look like and we urge you to respond with empathy instead of judgment when you encounter kids with SPD. 

Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear

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