Tips for Handling Special Needs Meltdowns

special needs meltdown

Being denied requests, having limits imposed upon them, and being told, “no” are all common triggers to the massive meltdowns that many children with autism and other special needs have.

Let’s face it, the truth is that everyone experiences negative, angry emotions when they are denied what they believe they deserve and people with special needs are no exception to that rule!

The problem is that individuals with special needs, especially those with autism often have the added challenge of lacking the ability and resources to regulate and manage their anger appropriately.

Language processing issues which affect many individuals with special needs often make it difficult if not impossible for them to understand why they are being denied what they feel is of the utmost importance.

This can make the management of disappointments and anger extra challenging!
special needs meltdown
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Over the past 18 years, I have learned a few helpful hints in dealing with meltdowns that may be helpful for you too!

Say “No” without saying no, even if the answer to your child’s request is actually no!

Early on I realized that saying “no” to Bethany would trigger a meltdown, so I began avoiding the need to say “no” whenever possible.

Of course there are times when I simply must say “no”,   like- “No, you can’t go potty in the men’s room. You are a girl” “No, you can’t eat the “bad” marshmallows. They have corn syrup in them!” or “No, I can’t buy that game right now because I don’t have enough money with me.”

When a situation arises where denying a request is absolutely unavoidable, I’ve developed ways to creatively avoid saying the actual word “no”.

I can sometimes say no without triggering meltdowns by saying things like, “Not right now” “We’ll see”, “Maybe later”, “I understand you want that”, “We can get it another day”, “I will think about it”, or “I heard you!”

Give up your power trip!

If there is no good reason not to let Bethany have what she requests, if it won’t hurt her and it is within my ability to give it to her, I usually let her have it.

I don’t need to prove that I’m the boss!

Let the “rules” not you, be the bad guy!

Another way to avoid power struggles when denying requests is to plan ahead and create picture or written rules for different situations with the denial “built in”. Then the rules become the “bad guy” not you!

Any time I take Bethany in the car, I know that she will ask for marshmallows, chocolate and pizza. If I don’t want her to have any of those things I print out a treat rules in pictures.

I draw a big red “No” symbol along with the word no written in red over the things I don’t want to buy her. I write a big green “yes” next to what I am willing to let her have. This trick has proven to be very successful for us many times!

Teach “First-Then skills.

An extremely important and useful skill to work on is the “First- Then” concept.

Sometimes our children can’t have what they want immediately, but they can have it later or on another day.

Use pictures or written rules to show what needs to be done first in order for your child to get their request.

A temporary denial is much easier for Bethany to tolerate when she knows her wants and needs are not being totally ignored.

Example: “First we need to see the doctor. Then we can get pizza for lunch.” “First Dad needs to get paid on Friday. Then we can buy that game that you want””

Celebrate a job well done!

When we find ourselves in the wonderful situation of Bethany having handled a denial well, we always praise her for it. This reinforces the good behavior and improves the chances that it will happen again!

After your child has handled denials well on a regular basis, go ahead and “practice” more denials.

Once your child has handled a few denials and disappointments well you can slowly,  gently, and gradually add in more denial situations as the need arises!

Obviously, it is unrealistic to believe that we can always give our children everything they want or avoid all meltdowns.

Sometimes setting limits and meltdowns are unavoidable.

If we do find ourselves and our children in the middle of a meltdown over being denied something we should kindly, sympathetically, and respectfully acknowledge their distress while also calmly and firmly letting them know that the answer is still, “no”.

We can try distracting them by reminding them of other activities that we need to be doing or offer them other choices that they can make.

However, I recommend keeping conversation to a minimum during a meltdown. It’s been my experience that too much talking only makes a meltdown worse!!
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8 Replies to “Tips for Handling Special Needs Meltdowns

  1. Super great tips Sylvia! We use the first this then that for almost everything. I also bribe her with visits from her favorite family members. Sad but true. “If you can’t get out of the car nicely than Daddy won’t be able to come home from work early.” This works great and I am sure you do this same thing. I can see from the pics, Bethany hates hearing No as much as Tiara. xoxo

    1. We find that it’s a very helpful coping tool for Bethany. She can handle waiting better when she knows her wants and needs aren’t being totally ignored!

  2. You sounds like you have a great strategy. These are great suggestions… and I mean for any parent! And maybe not just for parenting, but as relationship principles. (Visiting from Different Dream LinkUp!)

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