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Surviving the meltdowns

I've recently been asked how we've survived and dealt with my son’s meltdowns over the years. Sure, they weren't that bad really, not as bad as others experience.... were they? - by Valerie O'Donovan

Boy lying on the grass © Photo by Sara Dunn

Oh how time flies, even when at times you feel you're stuck in a tantrum-filled disaster zone. Time may even be the great healer we've been told it is. But the biggest surprise of all to me with regards to time is how time actually makes you forget.

I've recently been asked how we've survived and dealt with my son’s meltdowns over the years. I mentioned the Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron, as I usually do, but then kind of struggled to remember more. What did we do? Where have all the meltdowns gone to anyway? How did that happen? Sure, they weren't that bad really, not as bad as others experience.... were they?

"You can never forget how terribly upsetting it is to see your child so upset and out of control with no way of getting himself out of it."

Of course there were many incidents over the years, I recall them now but will leave them in the memory banks where they truly belong. I never really forgot, not really. You can never forget how terribly upsetting it is to see your child so upset and out of control with no way of getting himself out of it.

Now I do realise that meltdowns vary from child to child along the spectrum and triggers and solutions differ also. All I can do here is to share what I believe worked for us and give some pointers, such as:

Determine the triggers and avoid them at first.

Work through the 5 point scale bit by bit.

As you do the above help your child determine the coping phrases that lets him/her know help is available. These phrases will replace anger/screaming/hitting. For example: I need help..... I need a break.... I need to leave the room... depending on where on the anger scale he is and whatever phrase your child has chosen.

Initially regularly ask what number on the scale he/she feels at various stages during the day and acknowledge and name the emotion(s) for him/her. This will help to embed the strategies.

Re-introduce the triggers gradually together with solutions and/or the learned coping phrases. After all, if homework is a trigger it can't be avoided forever! Reduce the amount of homework too (or whatever activity is the trigger) so that a successful outcome is more likely, thereby increasing his self-esteem.

Lavish praise, congratulate, hell...throw a party every time he/she implements ANY part, however minute, of the plan you're working from! They respond SO well to praise :-). Of course if they get through homework (or whatever the trigger is) without having to implement any strategy then you may call all the relatives round for a knees-up! But NOT if that's a trigger, obviously.

Don't even attempt to force them to implement any part, however minute, of said plan if they're mid-meltdown. Totally pointless in my opinion and it's probably too much to ask of them. If you can't get in with a gentle reminder (prompt them with learned phrase e.g.: 'Do you need a break?' encouraging him to repeat, then respond immediately) just before the red mist descends.

I've learned that it's better to ride the storm, remove your child to a quiet place and when calm settles have a little chat. Ask them what they think they should have done instead of screaming/hitting etc. Once they say the agreed coping phrase then its hugs, cuddles and lavish praise...with a promise that they'll try harder next time. More flies with honey... and all that.

Never, ever forget the power of a good bribe reward system....ever Wink Implement one. NOW.

Rewards can be immediate, incremental, long term or a mixture of all three depending on your child and how they are with delayed gratification. My child has learned to deal with this over the years and can wait quite a while for his treat/reward.

He can even save his own pocket money (tie that into your reward system if you can) and wait until he's able to purchase his desired object. Rewards don't have to be huge or even tangible.

I have learned that the gentler, more structured punishment/consequences method works better. I have also learned to deal with the bad parenting guilty feelings that go hand in hand with that method. Mostly.

Consider this..... If a child has issues with delayed gratification or has a card that allows them 'skip queues' as waiting is difficult for them then why would grounding them or taking away gaming privileges for a week, or even a day, help with their angry outbursts? Expect screams for the whole week and, I reckon, huge self-esteem deflation with that one!

If putting a child in time-out for a minute for each birthday is appropriate when younger then why can't banning all screen-time (for example) for a shorter period be acceptable punishment for a 9 year old? Not that time-out was EVER a successful method for us, a complete disaster more like. Children on the autism spectrum are different and teaching them appropriate behaviours means tweaking the existing models, simple as that in my opinion.

"Trust your instincts and have total faith in the knowledge that you...yes, you... know your child best."

I've withdrawn screen time on numerous occasions for a 30 minute period and it has been successful. That time can be increased as they learn to tolerate it. Basically the time away from a favoured activity should be tailored to the tolerance levels of the child... and perhaps just a tad higher so that he feels the effect.

It is perfectly ok, in my opinion, to avoid going places or doing things that really upset your child. I know that feels like giving in and the Bad Parenting guilty feelings will take hold. It's easy for others to give their well-meaning advice but they have absolutely no idea of how things are in your house and your life.

Trust your instincts and have total faith in the knowledge that you...yes, you... know your child best. In time your child will be able to cope with some things that he/she couldn't previously. I know I upset family members many times by missing meals out/visits etc. but I gradually didn't care because I knew what was right for us. Now he goes anywhere, no problems. All in good time...

Ensure that your child knows why they're being punished. A young kid on the spectrum might not get why ‘no computer after dinner 'cos he/she pulled little Mary's hair at 10am that morning! An immediate response is better, I believe.

Implementing all of this needs your complete focus, so no making dinner, ironing clothes, Facebooking or tweeting whilst this is going on. This I learned the hard way! That said though, it is good to retreat into the background a little, as progress is made, so they learn to do it themselves.

Every night as you put your darling child to bed, regardless of how the day has gone, snuggle them, tell them you love them as usual then choose one thing, just one thing that they did well that day.

Praise them for that one thing and tell them how proud of them you are. This is the loveliest and most effective piece of advice I was ever given.

After you have come downstairs, pat yourself on the back... then pour yourself one very large glass of wine Wink This is crucial to the success of the whole programme. Parents need praise, bribes and rewards too you know!

This is not an official recommendation, just simply one mother's account of what worked for us in our meltdown years. It is not an exhaustive list either, I'm sure - at least I hope - some of you have other suggestions to add also. 

Our son seems to have survived the worst of the meltdown years, although we can still have some mini ones. He knows what to do now and even apologises at times! We are now moving closer to the terrible teen years and second level education and all the additional issues that this will entail.

I must not be too comfortable in my rose-tinted glasses and I must regain my focus to concentrate on the new challenges ahead. Good luck with whatever programme you put in place.

About Valerie

Valerie O'Donovan lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and teenage son. Some years ago she took a career break to look after her son and has learned a lot from her experiences. You can catch up with her blog here

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