Managing Meltdowns

There was a time when my son melted down every day, more than once a day. I woke up anticipating and dreading it. I stayed awake half the night dealing with it. And every single time I met someone with any experience in autism and sensory issues, I asked the same question –

What do I do when he melts down?

I asked our first OT who recommended diet changes. When we eliminated gluten and dairy, we had more meltdowns.

I asked a parent who also has a child on the spectrum. She told me she never has to deal with anything violent with her son.

Feeling defeated, I asked our developmental pediatrician, whom I adore. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Every single child is different and this is part of it. I can help, but only so much. You know him best. You will figure out his triggers and his needs.”

When she said that, I started to cry. Not only because deep down inside I knew she was right, but also because it meant something else was on me –  All. On. Me.

More, more, more is what I felt at the time. More responsibility, more pressure, more expectation. Just more.

Since my first post on this topic (describing my son’s meltdowns), many of you have asked me the same exact question –

What do I do?

I wish I could tell you. I wish I could give you a list of the Top 5 Ways to Avoid Public Meltdowns, or 7 Secrets to Not Being Injured During A Meltdown.

But the truth is, I can’t.

This is one of those ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’ kind of things.

And it is just not fair.

The good news however, is that after speaking with many mommas dealing with this every day, I do know there are some tools that have helped every single one of us. Let me stress, these are recommendations from other mommas, not experts. This is not the answer, so much as a set of guidelines that help us when navigating the road to and from a meltdown.

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So what do we do when our children melt down?

1. Lower Our Voices

Oh my goodness is this one hard to pull off. I used to lose my ever loving mind when my son would throw things or scream at me. And you know what? In hindsight, I realize I made every single one of those early meltdowns worse.

An overstimulated, melting down child does not need an overstimulated, melting down parent yelling at them and making an already horrible situation worse.

Calm, in control, low voices are always, always, always preferable mid-meltdown.

There was a time when I actually practiced what I would say during the next meltdown before it happened. It helped. When the time came, I was ready and didn’t have to think too much in the moment when I was aggravated and stressed.

It can be very difficult to stay calm, but usually helps to lessen the intensity and length of the meltdown.

2. Remove anyone who may make it worse and/or get hurt

Little brother and even my frustrated husband can, at times, escalate a meltdown quickly. Once a meltdown is happening, ask anyone who is not helping to please go and enjoy another activity. A sibling does not need to be in the middle of the mess. If possible, have the parent most likely to stay calm remain with the child melting down, and have the other take the sibling and blow off steam somewhere else. If you are alone with your children, ask the calm sibling to please go into the other room or outside and play for a bit. Use your calm voice (see above) and reassure the sibling that you are fine and are helping his/her brother or sister settle down.

My youngest felt abandoned at first when I would ask him to leave. I have learned to reassure him after each meltdown that the reason I ask him to leave is because I am worried about him being scared or hurt. It is as much for him as it is for his brother. He needs to hear me say that I am not choosing his melting-down older brother over him.

3. Find a Safe Place

For us, this is tough but necessary. Moving an already out of control child from one room to the next can be very difficult. However, remaining in an environment that is aggravating the problem (i.e. noise or smells) is not going to help your child.

I have learned to carefully walk my son, holding his arms gently at his side into his room. We have tried to keep most breakable items out of his space, so that it is a place he can calm down without doing too much harm.

If you are in the car, pull over. Please, for your own safety and the safety of everyone else on the road, pull over until your child is feeling more in control.

If you are in public, try to leave. If it is just impossible to navigate your child into a more private area, stay very close to him and again, use the calm voice. Try to keep your child away from other people or things that can be hit, broken, or tipped over (just trust me on this one).

No matter what, stay focused on your child. Ignore comments, stares, and obvious judgement from anyone looking on, no matter how angry or ashamed you may feel. Just keep working with and trying to calm down your child.

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4. Speak Repetitively, Communicating Love and Support

While using a low voice, many moms have found success in just repeating the same thing over and over again until their child begins to relax. For example, once I have my son in a quiet place, I typically repeat, “I am trying to help you. This must be so hard for you. I am on your side.”

It may take some time, but eventually, I can see him relax a little more each time I repeat myself.

5. Stay Close

I try to remember that when my child is melting down, the person that is the most affected by it is my child. Meltdowns can be very overwhelming and scary. My son grows more and more anxious as he feels a meltdown coming on and starts to panic (thus inducing a meltdown – Ugh). The feeling of being completely out of control can be terrifying for our children. I have found that when I stay close, even if I am not actively doing anything, just my presence helps. If I do need to leave, I communicate why and for how long.

For example, I might say, “I need to leave for 2 minutes to go help your brother. I know this is tough for you. I will be right back. I want to help.”

He may or may not really hear me, depending on how overwhelmed his body is, but being nearby and communicating my absence has substantially decreased the duration of my son’s meltdowns.

The exception to this is when you just can’t…if you feel like you are losing it, or fear being seriously injured, there is no shame in walking away for a bit.  When this happens (and it has) I try to explain that I need a moment to catch my breath and that I will be back shortly. Sometimes I choke this out through tears, but I try and say it just the same.

You are a person too. You have understandable limitations and this is not easy. Walk away if you need to compose yourself, and then calmly return to assist your child.

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Please allow me to again stress, this list is not inclusive nor is always going to help when meltdowns happen. Please use these recommendations as much or as little as they apply to your child and your circumstances. The truth is exactly what our doctor told me – You are the momma. You know your child best. You will figure this out.

If you are dealing with daily meltdowns, I am so sorry. There is no way to really describe the level of stress and crazy you are enduring. At the very least, please know that you are not alone. Your child is not alone. Meltdowns happen. They are part of this life we lead.

Keep working. Keep trying. Keep going.  Your child needs you.

You are exactly the right person for the job.

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21 thoughts on “Managing Meltdowns

  1. I found the book The Explosive Child by Ross Green to be a great starting point. Once we identified our sons triggers life got better. The absolutely hardest part was changing my reaction to his meltdowns, but it was totally necessary and has helped me remain calm when dealing with the school district. My son was little during the worst of this and I would hold him very tight and read books, stacks of books.

    1. That was one of the first books I read on this. I have another post planned on triggers and avoiding the meltdown in the first place and will likely reference Ross Green in it. I think you are so right – figuring out the triggers to avoid the meltdown in the first place is what helps our lives improve dramatically.
      Thank you for sharing, Stephanie!
      Love,
      Shawna

  2. These are all things that we try to do when our daughter is having a meltdown. Except just the sound of our voices (especially my husband’s) makes matters worse so we try to remain totally silent. I usually have to get my husband out of the room and the other kids know after 14 years of practice when to gather their devices and run! It’s a hard way to live for sure. I’d be honored if you’d share your posts with us at my Special Needs and Homeschooling Blog LinkUp every Friday! I’m going to add this post as a resource on my Humane Meltdown Management post. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you so much, Sylvia. I just tried to link up and I am excited to spend some time getting to know your sight. It seems like a great resource.
      With much respect,
      Shawna

  3. My child has aspergers and his anxiety is thur the roof sometimes, and he always wants reassurance that everything is ok, I feel like a tape recorder sometimes.and he also haves meltdown at school, I have not had that happen at home yet.
    thank you for talking about this.

    1. I can totally identify with the tape recorder description. Thank you for sharing your experience.
      Love,
      Shawna

  4. I love how much you care for your son. I work in an autism classroom as an ABA. I have found that using visuals and social stories for difficult situations have helped. Hopefully you’ll find the best method for the two of you. Best of luck to you and your son

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement, Brittany! We are starting to learn more about social stories and use them with my son. Even at his age, we are finding them to be very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing!
      Love,
      Shawna

  5. This is such a wonderful post. It is honest without being discouraging ( a hard balance to reach when talking about our kiddos). I eventually stumbled across most of your suggestions through trial and error with our little guy, and they were dead on the most successful strategies I had in my tool belt. I am most impressed with your pediatrician- it takes courage to tell an exhausted mother the truth (and it IS the truth) – there is no one answer. Thanks again for writing this <3

    1. We have been blessed by our developmental pediatrician over and over again. She is so kind, and so real – a perfect combination for our family. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am so glad you are also making so progress and discovering what works. Good job, Momma!
      Love,
      Shawna

  6. I really appreciate your transparency here. It is salve that I will be sharing with other parents who are nurturing, raising and advocating for their special needs chilldren. Our son is 20 now, but we have experienced quite a gambit of behaviors and responses in those 20 years – including the meltdowns, as we learned how to live with, respond to, help him manage, and advocate for his Sensory Processing Disorder needs. I especially like these words, which were so hard to hear and yet so very empowering: “You are the momma. You know your child best. You will figure this out.” We so often think we need a professional to tell us what we later realize we already know, but have just not had to confidence to explore for ourselves.
    God bless you, Shawna, for sharing so much of yourself and your experiences to encourage others.

  7. I read your post about accommodating or spoiling earlier today. My wife and I could relate, so we started looking at your other posts. We came across this one tonight just after our 9 year old daughter finished a huge meltdown. You see my wife washed the pillow cases today and we were having trouble getting all 6 pillows (yes, six) in the correct pillow cases. Did I say six pillows? No it’s seven counting the one that stays in her room in the bed she refuses to sleep in! The seventh one was loaned to big sister who needed propping up because she is sick in bed today. Oops, we didn’t ask the 9 year olds permission! Scream, scream scream!!!!!

    So, this was nice to read. It’s good advice, but more important is the part where you say that we are not alone. Thanks.

  8. Grand perants to two Fx toddler boys and never herd of Fx in my 66 years.We have both boys two days a week ,sleeping over and found your Managing Meltdown a huge help and has given us hope for Thomas and Blake.
    Thank you so much for opening your heart .
    Doreen and John.x

    1. I am so blessed by your words!!! Thank you so much and praying for you both and your two grandsons.
      Love,
      Shawna

  9. This is a good article. I couldn’t help but notice that in looking for people to ask for help, you didn’t get a chance to ask an Autistic adult. These days there are many of Autistic adults – some of us who also have Autistic children, who have books, blogs, and youtube channels like Neurowonderful that can give a lot of information of helping your Autistic children. Connecting with the adult Autistic community so you can get more non-medical perspectives and kids can get role models who are like them is so important, I think. It would have saved me a lot of heartache if I had had it while younger.

    1. I do know another mom who has high functioning autism who has been a HUGE help. You are absolutely right and thank you so much for the reminder.
      Love,
      Shawna

  10. Hey There~
    Great post! I found this on Pinterest after by 10 yr old son left for school, post meltdown. My son has PDD and had been doing very well until this school year. Part of it is a growth spurt, increased responsibility at school, and this is a time when the girls and boys aren’t all friends anymore…My son had always gravitated towards playing with girls, he fatigues quickly so the typical recess games boys play, he’s not interested in. This had left him feeling very isolated, anxious, and sad. It’s been a rough year. I took him into an OT for an updated sensory diet and after two spinners it was like having my happy, positive son back!
    We missed last week’s appointment, it was his brothers birthday and I have seen him progressively back slide, resulting in meltdowns. I can help him calm rather quickly but the triggers and consequent meltdowns happen so quickly I’m having a really hard time figuring out how to help him learn how to cope to avoid a meltdown…I have sent a similar message to our OT, but after reading this post thought I’d reach out to other mama’s. I don’t have any friends with similar problems and don’t bounce ideas off anyone. I don’t injure why, but this morning’s meltdown, which wasn’t as extreme our long as past behaviors really rattled me today…any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Katie

    1. Hi Katie – Are you on Facebook? If so, please head to the Not The Former Things page and post a message or comment. I will share it with the over 2300 followers and I promise you will get a ton of great advice. We have a tremendous community built on support and encouragement there. If not, I can post for you and share some of the advice here if you’d like!

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