Sensory Overload With a Side of Dinner
“I am 38 years old, kneeling on the floor of a Japanese restaurant trying to catch broccoli being thrown towards my mouth, completely sober. This is parenthood,” I thought to myself as I watched the tears on my daughter’s face turn into boisterous laughter.
We don’t usually go out to real sit-down restaurants because my daughter well and truly struggles to sit still. Most of our meals involve music and dancing or toys, in the comfort of our own home or on a park bench near a playground. It had been a while since we had tried a dinner out with family, but when my mom invited us out with the entire family, we couldn’t say no. Everyone decided on Hibachi, and knowing that this new experience might elicit anxiety from my daughter, I did what we always do before going somewhere new: turned on YouTube and watched Hibachi restaurant videos together. We saw chefs slinging knives through the air, slicing vegetables at warp speed, and making fire dance across the table. This time we even found videos of the actual restaurant we were going to on YouTube so she knew what it would look like.
When we arrived at the restaurant we met her cousins and grandma in the parking lot. She and my nephew excitedly led the pack into the restaurant. We were mercifully seated in the back of the restaurant, against the wall. In an instant, the control of pausing and talking about the videos we saw earlier in the day was gone, replaced with fire leaping off neighboring tables; sounds of metal utensils banging in all directions; voices of entertaining chefs booming from all around us. Due to the commotion, my daughter’s excitement turned to anxiety with the flip of a switch.
I pulled out a sensory brush and sat on the floor with her. She settled in and started looking around the room, still fighting tears. She was really trying, and my heart was breaking.
Moments later, a marching drum group came out to entertain diners, and my daughter became inconsolable. We gathered our stuff and left, but she wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. We sat on a bench in the lobby as I talked to her about the things she saw. She indicated that the heat from the fire scared her most, so I told her we could ask them not to make fire at our table. She calmed and asked to return to our family in the restaurant.
We sat on the floor again and I held my arm around her, talking about all the things we saw. I bounced her on my knee and my mom pulled Moana up on her iPhone in an attempt to distract. Her cousin was desperately trying to reassure her and tell her she was brave, when fire suddenly leapt off the table right behind me and she broke down again.
With her clinging to my neck we left the table once more, but she wasn’t ready to leave the restaurant. She wanted to sit in the lobby where we talked some more, and at this point I was digging deep for my own patience — I was ready go to McDonald’s and get her a happy meal and call it a night. But she was desperate to spend time with her family, so she asked me to take her back in.
We made our way back to once again sit on the floor near our family. At this point, the Chef was setting up at our table. He agreed to not make fire and began working hard to win my daughter over. He made eggs in the shape of a chicken, rice in the shape of Mickey Mouse. She was riveted by him, but we remained on the floor. When he started slinging broccoli into people’s mouths, her tears turned to smiles. When he began slinging it into my mouth, she was overjoyed and called for him to do it again and again. Thanks to this, I was able to leave my dignity on the floor of the Japanese restaurant and take a seat at the table. She joined me in her chair next to me and settled in, enjoying herself. She even ate rice for the first time!
By the time the dining experience was over, I was depleted and exhausted. But will I do it again? Yes. Yes, I will. My daughter has already asked if we were going to do “abitchy” this weekend. She will probably keep asking about it for a long time, because repetition is her thing. If you see a child having a meltdown in a restaurant, show some compassion. They might be fighting through anxiety and working through sensory overload. And their mother might have just gotten broccoli thrown at her head for the amusement of her child. We never know the struggles anyone is going through in any given moment, and a little compassion and understanding can go a long way.