Tips for Avoiding or De-escalating Meltdowns! Part One

As most of you probably know by now, my daughter Bethany is prone to having meltdowns.

A 140 pound fourteen year old throwing herself on the ground, kicking and screaming is not a pretty sight.

It’s not like we can pick her up, sling her over our shoulder and walk through the parking lot out to the car!

Being kicked, slapped, and having your hair pulled out is not fun!
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Since I’m fairly certain that there are other families dealing with rages caused by their child’s autism, I thought I might dare to offer some tips that have helped us avoid some (but obviously not all) of Bethany’s meltdowns.

Now please understand that I am not claiming to be an expert on the subject, that I’ve figured it all out, or that I’m always good at following my own advice.

I’m a flawed human who makes mistakes.

Neither am I claiming that what works for Bethany will work for your child, or that what has worked for Bethany one time will work in another situation.

I’m just offering some tips that MIGHT help you avoid going through a meltdown with your child!

What is a meltdown?

According to Jed Baker, PhD. meltdowns are escalating negative emotional reactions which may involve kicking, screaming, refusing to listen, physical aggression and bad language.

A meltdown may or may not be a manipulative behavior (Baker, Jed PhD., 2008).

Frankly, I don’t think the motive behind the meltdown really matters.

If your child is prone to meltdowns or running away when upset, please NEVER attempt to take him or her out anywhere in public without a helper.

1) Even if you are not sure if your child will understand, before venturing out in public let them know what will and will not be permitted. I have found that it’s always a good idea to remind Bethany of what behavior will be expected of her, what activity she can expect to happen and what she will and will not be allowed to do or buy. Perhaps writing or in our case drawing a social story about the outing and going over it with your child would be a good idea, too.

A social story is an individualized story tailored to your child’s specific needs that describes a given social situation: what will happen, what behavior is expected of your child, and strategies your child can use to be successful in that particular social situation.

2)  If your child enjoys rewards and can understand consequences to not behaving in the desired manner then perhaps setting up such a system would be useful.  Clearly explain to your child all rules and the consequences that she will experience if those rules are broken.  Be sure to also make a big deal about how great the reward will be for following the rules.  A chart or token system might be a good visual aid for this purpose.

3) If your child starts to meltdown try not freak out yourself! (I know,  I know- easier said than done. Just do your best. That’s all you can really do). Try to give the impression that you are calm and in control. Remain as unemotional as possible. Don’t let your child know that your are scared even if you are quaking in your boots. I know from personal experience that if I flip out and yell,  it will just make the situation much worse and will attract even more unwanted attention.

4) For us, the best plan is to leave Bethany alone until she gets over it. What often makes the meltdown worse is myself or my husband attempting to talk her out of it. Reasoning with her or telling her that she’s acting like a baby or that she’s acting like a bad girl does not help. In fact talking to her just makes  her meltdowns worse. In some instances we have silently waited out the storm for twenty minutes or more. Then most of the time she has calmly gotten up and nice as you please, walked to the car without further incident!  When waiting it out has not aborted a meltdown or it’s very clear for whatever reason that we need to make a quick getaway, we have resorted to asking for or accepting offered help in getting her to our car, where she immediately calms down as soon as the engine is turned on.

5) As hard as it may be, if your child is having a meltdown because she wants something that she can’t have like marshmallows, don’t let her have it or it will be even harder next time to avoid the same situation. ( I know because I’ve made this mistake more than once!)  On the other hand, if the wanted item is not going to hurt them and it gets you out of an extreme situation perhaps a compromise could be made. You are the best judge of this. Obviously if your child is melting down over peanuts but is allergic to them or he wants an item that you can’t afford or want to pay for then a compromise is not an option. However, if your child wants a bottle of bubbles and you aren’t letting him have them because you don’t like the mess they make in the house, then perhaps giving in and letting him have them is just the ticket to getting  both of you out of the store without going through a major meltdown.

Baker, Jed PhD., –No More Meltdowns,  (2008) Future Horizons -Arlington, TX-  pp. 5,7)

Join us tomorrow for part two where I will discuss some of Dr. Jed Baker’s strategies outlined in his book, No More Meltdowns.
To read Part Two, please click here.
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8 Replies to “Tips for Avoiding or De-escalating Meltdowns! Part One

  1. Sylvia, these are ALL excellent suggestions!! The only thing I will add (and this is really just an explanation of why #4 is true) is what an autism expert explained to me once about a meltdown. In a tantrum (which many non-educated people think is the same thing), the individual retains all their functioning capacity and are frequently observed checking on other peoples’ reactions. In a meltdown, an individual’s functioning capacity is diminished. It is the equivalent of a child losing 15 IQ points! This is HUGE. You go from dealing with someone who is rational to someone who is irrational. This is why if at all possible, wait them out or prevent it from happening in the first place.

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