When people meet my son, they are often taken aback to learn he has a special need. We are often complimented on how well behaved he is and how polite. But, life was not always that way.
When our son was younger, could not speak at age five, and could not communicate to us anything without grunts, hitting, and kicking, we often felt like Annie Sullivan with Helen Keller.
One Christmas, when he was younger, I remember walking into a store and my son pulling the most epic of tantrums because he could not get the toy he wanted. This was literally five minutes into walking into the store.
He threw himself on the floor, kicking, thrashing about, and screaming like a banshee. Words did not help.
The stares started. The condescending looks. My husband and I were faced with a choice: give in and get him what he wanted so badly or stand our ground.
I am stubborn…we stood our ground.
My son did not expect what I did next. My husband continued with the shopping trip while I hauled our son (kicking and screaming) back to the car. I then put him in his seat, shut the door, and stood outside in the safety and relative peace and quiet.
My son spent the next 15 minutes kicking, screaming, and hitting everything he could reach, in the safety of the car and seat. I was there ready to open the door at any moment should he become unsafe, or once he calmed down. The windows were rolled down a bit (all safety precautions were met).
Once he calmed down (and stopped seeing red), my husband and I were able to talk to him about his behavior and how that was unacceptable.
This was our turning point. This was when I began to dig into every parenting book for strong-willed children I could get my hands on, every podcast, Ted Talk, everything I could find out about our son’s needs, how his brain worked, and how we could help him overcome the challenges he was born with.
Here are the top 9 things we learned about how to prevent and stop meltdowns, tantrums, and mayhem.
1. Start Small: If your child is anything like mine, then you probably want to tackle everything at once. Potty training. Tantrums. Cleaning. Manners. Unfortunately, we do not learn that way. Pick one to three things you want to focus on. We chose behavior in a store and classroom and transitions from preferred to non-preferred activities.
2. Prep: So often I hear of parents who cave in the market check out line when their child starts a tantrum. Or parents tell me of how exhausted they are from calls from the school and parent-teacher conferences. I get it. We could time the first call from the school to the exact day in the school year (Monday week three). We once had three parent-teacher conferences in the first week and a half of school. What we learned, prep. Prep the child with what is expected of them and what they will earn if they accomplish it. Prep the teachers what is expected of both child and teacher. Teachers have to be on board. We had a system where I texted the teacher daily what our son was earning and the expectations. This was helpful for consistency throughout the day.
3. Be Consistent: I am a big proponent of this and will say it again. Consistency is key. If your child thinks he plays a parent against the other, if she thinks she can get away with something at school and not at home, if a child sees a weakness in defenses anywhere – they will exploit it! Be consistent and work as a team.
4. Incentivize: I get the most push-back on this. “I don’t want to bribe my child.” “I don’t want my child thinking they get a treat just for making choices expected of them.” “I don’t want to bribe my child.” I get that. First, an incentive is not a bribe. A bribe is reactionary – an in the moment choice: “If you stop throwing a fit, then I will get you the candy you are hollering about.” This teaches the child that enough public humiliation for you as the parent gets them what they want. An incentive is a contract. A contract between parent and child of what is expected on both sides. If you keep your hands in your pocket in the store/if you use please and thank you/if you finish your homework without asking, then you get a balloon/piece of candy/star on your chart. This is actually a great way to start teaching finances and economy as this is a practice we adults use daily. Work an hour and I will pay you $10.00, don’t complete the work well, and you are fired. Instead of hourly work, they are doing task work – like an independent contractor.
5. Diet: Food affects behavior. Food was not something we originally tracked. I am so glad we did. By tracking his food, in combination with behavior, we learned that within 24 hours (to the minute) of having dairy, our son would have very negative behavior. We learned that when he ate a lot of processed food, high sugar foods, his focus decreased and his attitude was negative. We later learned this was because he was having stomach issues (he couldn’t tell us his stomach hurt). A great cookbook that helped us get started on a healthier diet for him is The Brain Food Cook Book, written by a mom of a special need’s kiddo. I have to say, some of our favorite recipes are in this book, and the tips on how to do this without breaking the bank and how the brain works is incredible. Our son’s neurologist concurred and said it was because of his diet and his oxidated stress regime, our son did not need medication for his migraines and other neurological issues.
6. Medication: If you can avoid it, I personally recommend avoiding medication. In our experience, when Kennedy Krieger doctors told us they don’t know enough about the need and effect of medication long-term on children, we were very hesitant. However, the school system we were in at the time, told us without medication they would not teach our child. The daycare echoed this. (NOTE: This is not legal, and we should have fought it, but didn’t know at the time we could). The medication prescribed was only approved in adults with heart conditions. The bi-product was helping with behavior in children, but no long-term studies had been done. We later learned (three years on the mediation), that there were studies showing his medication could lead to cancer long term. They did help. If that is what you think is best for your child, do what is best for your child.
7. Oxidated Stress: This an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. This occurs naturally. There are some peer-reviewed studies showing this affects everything from thyroids (almost 5,000), cancers (nearly 90,000), ADHD (nearly 2,000), and Autism (nearly 3,000). How do you combat this naturally occurring process? Fruits and vegetables are a start. We also switched to “clean” cleaning products (chemical free), decreased screen time, and increased time outside. We incorporated Protandim into our life. After a month on this vitamin, our son’s monthly to quarterly ER visits for stomach migraines decreased to none in the past three years, our son’s focus and attention increased (he is 11 reading at a ninth-grade level and taking a college music course), and he has been completely off medication for three years (taken off under the care of his physician). We get ours from Life Vantage (patented formula).
8. Track: It is important to only start one behavioral change at a time. Introducing too many variables at once will not let you know which ones do anything. We started with diet, then added medication, then dealt with oxidated stress – which eventually got him completely off medication. Track measurable things – how often the school calls, grades, attention while reading, how long it takes to complete a task. Below are some great resources we used, and use, to help us. I recommend making them editable and laminating them. This reduces waste and allows you modify based on age and behavior. Dry erase markers work great on these.
9. Celebrate and Recycle: Celebrate the win! Talk with your child about how proud you are of their progress. Celebrate the hard work it took them to accomplish that goal. Then, start the process over on a new behavior or more advanced behavior. Humans should never stop learning and growing. This is especially important for children. When one thing is mastered, move on to the next level or new behavior.
For more ideas on how to help avoid meltdowns and mayhem, take a look at my Facebook page.