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Stubborn naughty boy crying on the playground

Tips for Parents and Caregivers

If you have a child on the Autism Spectrum, ADHD, or similar special needs, you already know what a meltdown is like. Handling meltdowns is a major challenge for even the most seasoned parent. When I began to witness meltdowns in my third child, who was later diagnosed with autism, I could tell they were different from a typical toddler’s tantrums. I learned that a meltdown is similar to a thunderstorm in the brain of the child with special needs. They can be intense! Let’s look at some common causes of meltdowns and the best ways for parents and caregivers to respond to them.

Causes of Meltdowns

Since each child is a unique individual, meltdown triggers will differ from person to person. A meltdown is a response to something that your child doesn’t know how to cope with. It’s important for parents to try to discern what triggers their child’s meltdowns.

Some common triggers are:

  • Anger and frustration
  • Confusion
  • Sensory overstimulation
  • Low/absent language skills
  • Reaction to a food or drink
  • Illness or headache

Responding to a Meltdown

How parents and caregivers respond when a child has a meltdown is extremely important. Mishandling a meltdown can exacerbate the situation and ultimately lead to more meltdowns. Try a few of these tips:

  • Ignore (as much as possible) the advice, opinions, and criticisms of others.
  • Stay calm and remain in control. Take deep breaths, pray, or silently repeat a calming phrase to yourself.
  • Remove any hazardous objects or things that could be thrown or break during the meltdown. Your first responsibility is to keep your child (and others around him) safe.
  • Don’t talk to the child having a meltdown. Definitely avoid trying to negotiate with him. Avoid eye contact.
  • Don’t offer rewards or bribes to try to stop the meltdown. This will ultimately reinforce meltdown behavior.
  • Never use corporal punishment (spanking) during or after a meltdown.
  • If you are at home, isolate your child, especially if other children are nearby. If you are in public, keep your eyes on your child and move him to a safe location, if needed. Never walk away from your child in public.
  • Other than moving your child to a safe location, do not touch your child during a meltdown. Adding sensory stimulus is usually not helpful.
  • Reduce sensory stimuli, if you are at home and can control the environment. Turn down the lights, turn off the TV or radio, ask others to be quiet.

After the Meltdown

Often, a child who has had a major meltdown will be extra-sensitive for a few hours afterwards. It is best to return to the child’s regular schedule as soon as possible. Reduce the amount of sensory stimuli and strive for a quiet, calm environment. Speak to your child in short, simple sentences. Don’t punish your child for the meltdown.

Next week, we’ll look at teaching children with special needs coping skills that will help reduce meltdowns in the long run. Meltdowns can continue into adulthood if the proper skills are not learned.

If you are struggling with your child’s meltdowns, we encourage you to ask your child’s Occupational Therapist or other professional for help. At All About Therapy in Raleigh, we welcome our parents’ questions and work with each family to find the right solutions. If you would like an in-home evaluation for your child with special needs, call us today at (919) 448-6018.

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