These tips are for typically developing children, although there are some anecdotes about children with developmental problems. The purpose of the tantrum needs to considered and there are important distinctions between meltdowns and tantrums in autism. Meltdowns may be due to sensory overload, confusion, emotional stress, etc. Please see the document Fragile World on the Spectrum for a great explanation. If the behaviour is a tantrum designed to avoid something that you know your child with autism could do without distress, these tips will still apply.
Kids that hit you, scream at you, tell you that “hate” you when angry are looking for some kind of reaction (positive or negative…anything!). If you react it reinforces the behaviour in your child’s brain and she will be more likely to do it again. What to do then?
1) Remove the audience. Walk away. You need to be consistent with this.
2) Don’t react at all. Don’t show you are upset when she tells you “you are stupid!” Don’t give her eye contact, don’t speak at all and walk away.
At this point parents tend to say “I’ve tried this” but if I scratch the surface a little bit, the technique is never used consistently and this is the vital ingredient. Reacting consistently with an identical response each time will strengthen the association in her brain if I tantrum I will not get a reaction. I can’t stress enough that no reaction means no reaction. No hurt on your face, no eye contact, no tense muscles…completely non-phased. Persist with it because the behaviour is very well reinforced in their brain, it will take a while for the mind to register that it doesn’t work anymore. Just like playing the pokies…”well I didn’t win last time but maybe this time I’ll get lucky!” When parents say “I’ve tried that” and I ask “how long?” and they respond “a couple of times” or “I did that last week and she still did it again the next day!” then we know that persistence was missing and of course it didn’t work.
This advice doesn’t just come from my training so when parents then say to me “but you don’t understand! The text book says that but it’s harder to do in real life” I can tell them about my years of experience with violent tantrums. I would probably tell them about some of the children and teenagers I’ve worked with who have had severe autism or childhood trauma like sexual assault. There was a particular little boy, a 5 year old who would tantrum in an attempt to avoid the therapy we were doing, which is understandable because it was hard for him. He would kneel in front of me and dig his nails into my thighs, pulling them down to leave deep grazes down the length of my legs. Then he would spit directly in my face. I would allow the spit to drip off because even wiping it away is a reaction! While he was calm we would continue to work on emotion regulation techniques and reinforce them, there is no benefit in teaching or prompting him to calm during a meltdown until the skills are solidified.
Another older boy I used to work with would almost press his face against mine and yell. He was a big lad and he scared his teachers and family. I wouldn’t flinch; I’d wipe all expression off my face and talk every now and then in a very soft voice but very minimally. He realised that I was a safe person for him to meltdown with but also soon realised that he didn’t need to meltdown to be heard.
SO THAT IS WHAT TO DO DURING THE TANTRUM BUT WHAT ABOUT MAKING IT LESS LIKELY THAT THE TANTRUM WILL HAPPEN AGAIN?
Amy McCreadie from Positive Parenting Solutions would tell you that kids seem to have two baskets that need to be filled EACH DAY. The belonging basket and the significance basket. The belonging basket is filled with things that make your child feel emotionally connected AND that give them enough positive attention each day. The significance basket is filled with things that make your child feel capable, contributing to the family and powerful. Simple ways to empower your children include allowing them to brainstorm and problem-solve. “You have school tomorrow. What do you need to organise?” Rather than saying “You have school tomorrow. Go get your bag, make sure you have your hat, put your lunchbox on the bench….” Allowing them to have choice is also very important. So give them two options, both will be options you are happy with but the choice is empowering, “do you want the apple or the banana for your lunch?”
The most important thing to put in your child’s basket EACH DAY to prevent tantrums is positive attention. One-on-one engagement with eye contact is vital. Look away from your phone or laptop or ironing and look them in the eyes when they try to engage with you. I hear lots of protests to this one… “She gets so much attention from us! We read to her every night (reading is something they have to do for school; even if she enjoys it she won’t view it as special time). We go for walks. (How often…oh once a week or less). We go to the park (once a month or so).” These are all great things but they don’t fit the criteria of positive attention EACH DAY.
If you don’t fill this basket every day you will notice things like bedtime dawdling or full bedtime battles in an attempt to get that attention before the day is through. Sibling fighting and whining are also indicators of not enough positive attention each day, according to Amy McCreadie from Positive Parenting Solutions.
See Positive Parenting Solutions for some tips about how to fill your child’s positive attention basket each day.
Check out this YouTube video My angry child tells me she hates me by parenting guru Amy McCreadie.
Keep battling on but stop the “battling”,