9 Steps to Preventing and Stopping the Meltdowns and Tantrums

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. 

Helen Keller’s first experience with Anne Sullivan (an ABA therapist if ever I saw one)

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.

Re-set During #Socialdistancing

Man laying down on steps of building during daylight hours
Man laying down on steps of building

Before #socialdistancing exercise, eating right, and balance seemed much easier.  Motivation was easy – people see you.  Who wants to look like a louse in public? 

But as #socialdistancing extends, the leggings, carbs and time in front of the TV are preferable to almost anything else.  No one wants to look at the scale.

For kids with sensory needs, this is even more important as the sensory input of a workout resets the chemistry in the brain.  This helps with focus, self-control, and skill development.

Countless studies show exercise is critical to health.  But there is a developing field of study in how exercise actually helps impact the neuron pathways in the brain.  ABA, Occupational Therapists, even parents, can attest to the importance of a regular sensory workout program (SWP) in helping children with special needs, indeed all children, with coping, focus, and development.

How does one do this in the home?  When we can’t leave?

Here are some things that work for us.

Hanging out in the sensory room playing on the ropes, rock wall and rings.
Hanging out in the sensory room

Sensory Room

A sensory room is designed to help someone regulate their brain using external sensory input.  That is technical speak for “help re-center yourself.”  Sensory rooms have been shown to have calming effects, help improve focus, increase socialization, and help with all sorts of development (both neurological and physical.

We discovered this importance when our son was about five.  He needed a place to get all his wiggles out, calm down, and enjoy himself. 

Our room is the garage.  In this room, we have an art table, a basketball hoop, rock wall, ropes, and a punching bag. 

This room is a place where we presently do out occupational therapy, but when it is not used for therapy, it is also a “fort” (which every kid needs).  A sensory room grows with the child.  This room is the “hang out” place for playdates, it is the escape from parents when angry place, and a place for a great work out for parents place as well.

Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program
Ideas on how to create a sensory workout program

Sensory Workout

No one likes working out.  Even those who say they do – don’t.  They like the after-effects. 

That is true for our kiddos too.  Working out is hard.  But a necessity of life.

A sensory work out is not that different than a regular work out. I do recommend getting with your occupational therapist before starting one, as each work out is different depending on the person.

Usually, a workout will consist of some combination of proprioceptive (deep pressure to joints and calming/organizing), vestibular (excites, usually circulatory and rhythmic), touch, smell, breathing, and auditory input.  It does not usually go longer than 30 minutes and can be done easily at home or at school.

We have been known to do wall push-ups and squats in grocery stores, joint pressure at restaurants and them parks, and always have some sort of audio and smell for calming wherever we go.  We like citrus oils for focus before school ad lavender oils for calming after.

Sensory Tent
Sensory Tent

Sensory rest

Just as every fitness instructor will say a warm-up and cool down are important for every workout, sensory rest is just as essential for every person.

A 2018 study showed an average adult (18+ years old) spends over 11 hours a day looking at a screen.  That is 45.83% of the 24-hour day.  If you a lot for 8 hours of sleep (which we don’t usually get), that is 68.75% of our day in front of a screen!   Is it any wonder we need a reset?

In our house, we each have space and activity that works for us.

My husband goes on long runs and he and I will do a kickboxing or boxing workout on the punching bag at least once a week (sometimes more).

My son and I like to do yoga together.  The meditation and combination of proprioceptive and vestibular input are super calming.  I prefer something like YogaShred where he prefers the stories of Cosmic Kids Yoga.

We also both love heavy blankets! 

My son also has a tent in his room he often withdraws to where he reads, draws, plays with Lego. 

Workout gear

I know it is hard to feel settled during #socialdistancing.  It is hard during regularly scheduled programming as well.  Try and find some ways this week to help re-set.  Re-center. Refresh.  Let me know what  works for you and your kiddos or if you want some more ideas on how to use what you already have in your home to make a sensory diet.

No Showers and Bad Dreams

There is a scene in Patch Adams when Robin Williams portraying Patch Adams character is helping an in-patient go to the bathroom.  The patient had an illogical fear of invisible squirrels that prevent the patient from leaving his bed to use the bathroom.  Adams plays into the fear and helps “fight off” the squirrels so his roommate can finally relieve himself.

This is an excellent example of life with children.

Our son has been bathing himself for years.  About age eight there was a time he would not go into the shower – hygiene been damned.  When he asked him why, he was adamant a shark was going to attack him.  

Continue reading “No Showers and Bad Dreams”

Life Is a Roller Coaster

“Mom, can we go on that roller coaster?” Our five-year-old son asked to ride his first big-boy roller coaster –the Super Duper Looper.  Having verified the height requirement (and that it was safe for a five-year-old), we all jumped in line.  Never did we think that the very first thing that would happen on this ride was to be flipped entirely upside down! I thought for sure our son would get off the ride and hate it.

I was wrong.

“Let’s do it again!” he screamed excitedly as he exited (to my utter dismay). 

But that ride taught me some very valuable lessons. 

There are ups and down

When we first found about Autism, we did not know much about it.  We are still learning about now.  But something I wish we were told at the onset was that life is a roller coaster.

Most people hear that and think of Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates and very rightly say, “Obviously.”  But what I am talking about goes further than the what nutty delicacy life dishes out. Life with Autism is taking two steps forward and one step back. It is a constant up and down.  It is fast paced and often takes your breath away.

When our kiddo was younger, he could not talk and potty training was difficult to say the least.  At four we would spend a week getting him potty trained and then send him to his other parent for the weekend.  Every time he came home not potty trained. 

Every time we would have him using a word to communicate (just one word) we would send him back to the other parent and he would come back mute…well, screaming like a banshee is probably more appropriate.  

But he is potty trained and he can carry on lengthy conversations…as long as they are on a topic he wants to discuss. 

But that process of two steps forward and one step back is exhausting.  It can be affected by the smallest changes in routine to the largest. Moves between homes. Moves across the country. Different teachers. Different subjects. Developing hormones.

It is really easy to see the negative in life circumstances and feel like you will never reach the goal.  Sometimes the low of the rollercoaster is really low.  Sometime your stomach lives in your brain. Sometimes it is easy to forget how high you fell from or how far the child has come.  It is easy to think your lives are the valleys when in reality there have been many mountains…and very close together.

You will reach your goals.  They will.  With solid routine, quality time, and people who will fight for them, each child with special needs can and do make and break through their goals. 

Expect greatness and you will get it…eventually

I have a neck injury and a weak stomach.  Going on a roller coaster I thought was great for a child of five, I was not anticipating breaking my neck and holding in my breakfast.  I very much disliked that ride.  I thought my son with sensory issues and an intense sensitivity to loud noises would hate that ride too.

But my son did not.  He absolutely loved it! 

I came to learn that the deep pressure provided on a roller coaster is really helpful to kids with neuro-sensitivity.  I learned that my son has a Big-Gulp need for motion…I, on the contrary need, a teacup and call it good.  I learned that my son has no fear (except one…but I am keeping that to our family for now). 

Not only did he love the ride, he wanted more of it.  He wanted to do every ride.  The bigger and faster the ride the better it was for our son.

By making the one decision to try something new, outside everyone’s comfort level, against what seemed to be logical given his diagnosis, we got something magical!

I got to experience his first roller coaster ride with him (which is awesome because every other ride he wants to go with his dad).  I got to see my son over come legitimate challenges to sound, delayed gratification waiting in line, dealing with enclosed spaces in the queue and many more.  My son taught me in that moment that he can do anything he puts his mind too – no matter the challenges he faces.

This too shall pass

When I was on that ride I just kept counting down the moment until it passed.  My stomach was in my head.  My neck was definitely in the wrong place.  I was strapped so tightly down I could not breathe. I could not wait for that ride to be over.

Sometimes, when dealing with special needs, it is easy to get stuck in that stomach-flipping moment.  It is easy to think, “We have come so far and he regressed so much” or “Why are we having the same argument with the school and the district” or “Why can’t he play like everyone else?”  It is easy to get stuck in the valleys and gorges and canyons. 

But I encourage you to look toward the mountains on either side.  The one they just came down (because that will show you what they are capable of) and the one they are about to start climbing (because that one will always be better than the last. 

There is an end in sight to every dark valley. 

For me it helps to remember things they have accomplished.  I often remind myself that my son is grade level, even though he misses a ton of school for doctors’ appointments.  I remind myself that at five my son was not talking and now I can’t get him to stop.  I remind myself that he went from not knowing how to make a friend to having many at his birthday party. 

Yes, even these dark gorges will pass.  And they will pass sooner than we think.  And we will be on to the next big and wonderful goal and accomplishment next week. 

Box of Chocolates

As this year begins, I encourage you to see the mountains for what they are – accomplishments.  Take the valleys for what they are – lessons to be learned.  And move forward with a purpose and vision of accomplishing more than you ever thought possible.  We did.  And I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Celebrate Life

Being the middle of seven children, I have seen the gambit in behaviors. Everything from stitches and fights to games of “War” and dances. I have been blessed to always have a sibling on my side when life turns a sour leaf and family around for holidays…and sometimes when I don’t want them.

But, not everyone is as blessed.

Special needs children are one of the largest groups of children in America…and unfortunately, one of the most often forgotten and ostracized. Many hear the words “special needs” or “Autism” or “Down Syndrome” and immediately think “stupid,” “hard,” and “pity.”

They could not be farther from the truth!

Our little bundle of joy was diagnosed with Autism at age three. And, like all parents who hear that, there was some fear and trepidation (a discussion for another time). At the time, and up until he was about five, our kiddo did not speak. There was loud screams, throwing, tantrums and the like because speech communication was not possible. Getting dressed was a chore as he could not put socks on by himself much less zip a zipper to his pants or button his jacket.

Hard. Yes. But, do I need to be pitied? NO!

You see when my son first started to say small sentences – PURE JOY! When he started to be able to zip his pants – JUBILATION! When he started to got straight A’s having to be pulled from class on a daily basis for doctor’s appointments – PRIDE would be an understatement. I even told my husband my kid was the smartest because he did what streamlined kids did in half the time!

What living with a special needs kid has taught me is… [Read more…]

25550143_10155808483556142_2522427214469481469_n

1. Celebrate Life

In our day and age, it is really easy to get down and out. We are inundated with negative thoughts and reality. News broadcasts deliver only negative news and life hits hard when it hits. Seeing the negative is like pouring a cup of coffee – most of us do it without even thinking.

Living with Autism teaches celebration of life. When you can constantly find growth it is easy to be optimistic. When you can see that life is not in a diagnosis but a person it is easy to enjoy the beauty of a hand-painted birdhouse or a freshly made pot of coffee.

Life is about teamwork. And when you have a great team (my husband is a rock star!) the support makes life that much more colorful and brilliant.

43055501_10156528769791142_1288781623805870080_o

2. Enjoy the Little Things

I will admit there are days when life feels like it will sucker punch me every chance it gets. But who’s life doesn’t do that? Living with special needs does not mean that life is easier or harder than for anyone else. It just means we (those of us who have special needs in our lives) face different challenges.

So, like every other family, we celebrate the little things.

We celebrate cutting a straight line. We celebrate our little one talking and playing WITH a peer. We celebrate the full sentence. We celebrate jokes.

These little celebrations may seem little but they are HUGE accomplishments. And they remind us that we are more than scary words. Doctors do not always know best. Just like with every other kid, our kid is more than the sum of his doctors’ visits and school meetings.

17212145_10154950757971142_3958740544222602206_o

3. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Prior to special needs, I would sweat the small stuff. Little things like my sister not emptying the lint trap in our family dryer or how much the scale tipped when I stepped on it were heavy weights on my shoulders.

Autism taught me life is more than the small stuff. There are bigger things to worry about in life like family, doctors, and school.

If it is a choice between my son thumb sucking while focusing on homework or throwing a tantrum because he does not want to do homework, guess which one I am ignoring?

If it is a choice between not reading and reading a comic book, guess which one I am telling his teacher he gets to read?

If it is a choice between rocking in his seat and being quiet or jumping out of it screaming, “Pick me! Pick Me!”, guess which one I am telling the teacher to ignore?

There are big battles and small battles and some battles you just don’t fight. Special needs have taught me how to better see the difference.

25446097_10155808485071142_794937375179414279_n

4. Don’t Miss Out!

I know many families in the special needs world. Many on the Autism Spectrum. A lot of families think this diagnosis is an end-all to life as a family. Many do not leave the home…ever. Vacation – thing of the past. Trips – never going to happen. Movies – dream on!

When the word “Autism” came into our lives, our son was not talking, not potty-trained, screamed 90% of the time, was very hyperactive and threw tantrums that would make The Hulk look like a mouse. But, we made the choice early on to not let the diagnosis dictate our lives. We made the choice to hold our son to the same standards as any other child and not let his diagnosis be his crutch.

(I know I hit a nerve with some of you just now. I know there is a spectrum and big trips are hard. I know about Regressive Autism. I know first hand about the challenges of tantrums, non-verbals, and the complete difficulty it is to even get childcare for a couple hours of respite. I understand the reason some families choose to stay home. No judgment. It is just not what we chose.)

We chose to take our son out in public to things like museums, theme parks, and, yes, movies.

We did not do this without a plan. We made sure to follow all applicable guidance. But we did discover, that for our kiddo, the exposure helped with social situations, speech, and relationships.

We have a don’t miss out mentality that has served us well.

50878353_10156772380841142_1424680359055851520_o28129

5. Make Time

It is easy to forget to set time aside for yourself in a regular run-of-the-mill-under-the-radar kind of life. But add in multiple weekly doctors appointments in different cities on different days, school IEP’s, parent-teacher conferences and regular life of working full-time and it becomes really easy to forget about yourself and your family.

I don’t mean you forget your family. What I mean is that it is easy to forget to spend quality time with them.

We have learned that time apart each day whether in a workout, reading a book or playing a video game (yes, I said it) is essential to sanity!

We have learned that game nights, arts and crafts and reading together unite us beyond diagnosis and beyond the stress of the battle.

We have learned that date night does not always (and usually doesn’t need) a sitter. We enjoy a movie night in front of the fire with a glass of wine. We enjoy reading to each other. We enjoy sitting out in the hot tub and talking about life. None of these cost a lot of money. None of these require a baby sitter. And all are an essential investment in our marriage.

More to Life

So, does special needs mean a life of hard work? Yes! But whose life is not hard? Does it mean my life is different than most? Yes, but who wants a normal life? Does it mean I am to be “pitied?” No! If nothing else, I have been blessed beyond most. I have learned more than most. I have enjoyed life more than most.

Don’t let the diagnosis stop you from loving and living life. Don’t let a diagnosis of others scare you off from participating in their life. Don’t let the social understanding of special needs (which is highly lacking and often a misrepresentation) be your understanding of them. Be open. Be honest. Be willing. Your life will never be the same again.