If you have a child who has ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder odds are that you have experienced the volcanic force of your child having a behavioral meltdown at one point or another. I am certainly no stranger to this phenomenon. And it always seems to happen during those “inopportune” times such as a crowded store where you are waiting in a long checkout line full of grumpy people. Or else the explosion inevitably occurs in a place where one is supposed to be quiet such as the library. I often considered wearing a t-shirt which says, “My son isn’t bad he just has autism.”
I remind myself that I had a career in dealing with behavioral problems. I worked as a developmental therapist for adults with multiple diagnoses, for over a decade. I feel I have seen a vast range of behaviors from a fellow who liked to run to the top of the bell tower (our day program was located in a church basement) and squeal with joy as he publicly urinated, to people who would throw tables and chairs in a rage, using my body as their target.
I have been pinched, punched, kicked, bitten, cussed out and spit upon. I have commandeered classrooms having dozens of unruly and chaotic children as well as groups of adults who had been kicked out of several or more programs due to their aberrant behaviors before I got to welcome them to my brood. So why does it seem so much harder to deal with the behavioral outbursts of one small boy?
Because he is my child.
I just want to make the point at the onset that it may seem that professionals have it all together. We see these child “experts” and behavioral gurus come into a situation who seem to know all the answers. You know why it may be easier for them? Because they are not the parent. They don’t live with your child 24/7. I have seen things now from both sides of being a professional teacher and therapist and being a parent myself. There is no comparison. Professionals get to go home at the end of the day. They can detach emotionally. But you will always be your child’s parent. You will always have that emotional investment in your child’s welfare.
As a parent, you know your child best.
And part of dealing with your child’s behaviors including tantrums and meltdowns (I prefer the term “meltdowns” myself) is using that knowledge about your child to help control the environment so that you can prevent a meltdown in the first place.
Here are my best suggestions for decreasing meltdowns:
1. Do an “ABC” analysis:
Get a piece of paper. Divide it up into three columns. Label the first column with an “A” for antecedents. Write down any antecedents to your child’s outbursts. These are all the things which come before a meltdown. Is there a particular setting where these behaviors usually occur? Does it happen at a certain time of day? Are there certain triggers which set off your child? People always think behaviors arise out of the blue. They don’t. There is almost always a trigger whether it is external from the environment or internal such as feeling tired, hungry or uncomfortable.
The second column is labeled with a “B” for behaviors. This is the space where you describe your child’s behavior in detail. Make sure you include a description of how the behavior starts (what are your child’s warning signs before an impending explosion?). What does the meltdown look like? What is the worst that happens and for how long?
The third column is the “C” column for consequences. What happens next after your child’s meltdown? How do you or others react to your child’s behavior? And does the child wind down eventually or do certain actions maintain the behavior?
It may seem tedious or even silly to do this but believe me, it will give you very detailed and hopefully objective information about the patterns of your child’s behavior. Should you enlist the help of a teacher, consultant, or therapist, this analysis will greatly help anyone helping you to do their job better.
2. Prevent the behavior from happening in the first place.
If you find a pattern which shows that your child seems to always have trouble in crowded stores then you want to try to limit those times. Go to the store with your child when it is less busy if you can. If you want to teach your child to cope with crowds then pick and choose your battles wisely and be prepared to teach your child coping skills for dealing with that particular setting or trigger.
Take a good look at your child’s warning signals that an impending meltdown is about to take place. This is the time to act and not during a behavioral eruption. During a meltdown your child has usually lost most or all of their capacity to listen and to reason. Your best chance at intervention is when your child is just beginning to escalate but still has control.
It is at this point when distraction in terms of focusing his or her interest on something else or even removing the child from situation to regroup may be a wise idea.
3. Teach your child to pay attention to his or her warning signs.
You can provide specific feedback such as "You are doing this (describe behavior) so it is time to do this instead (describe a calming behavior such as counting slowly to ten, deep breathing, visualization, or whatever you find calms your child.) Teaching your child how to self-calm is a critical life skill.
4. Replace the meltdown behavior with the behaviors you do want to see.
This greatly depends upon why your child is having meltdowns in the first place. One huge reason so many children who have special needs have behavioral outbursts is because they have not found a way that they can properly communicate their needs and wants. Teaching communication skills is always something your child can benefit from. Always be thinking, “Okay I don’t want to see this behavior so how can I teach my child a replacement behavior which will get their needs met?”
5. Rule out sensory reasons for your child’s behavior.
Another big reason for meltdowns is something is bothering their senses. The child feels uncomfortable in some way due to the sensory environment including too much sound, too much chaos, the lights are too bright, their clothing is too scratchy and so forth. For other children restrictions on their need to move and exert energy may cause a meltdown. Looking at your antecedents list should give you some ideas as to whether the behaviors are caused by sensory issues.
6. Analyze the consequences.
Look at your last column of your “ABC” analysis. Are you inadvertently rewarding the very behaviors that you wish to diminish? Are your reactions contributing to the maintenance of your child’s behavior? I think it is best to focus more on prevention and being proactive than upon reacting. The best time to teach your child is not during a meltdown. The best you can do at those times is to remove the child to a safe area and allow the tantrum to fizzle out. During these times I think of the phrase, “This too shall pass” and he is having a bad day. It does help to separate your child from the behavior and not label your child as impossible or bad but that he or she is having a rough time.
I hope this helps some. Now I want to hear from you. What are some of the ways that you deal with behavioral meltdowns with your kids? What works and what does not work for you? Tell us your story. We want to hear it.