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How Can I Help My ASD Child Better Control Tantrums

August 8, 2020

As a parent, nothing can be more exhausting, or frustrating, than the specter of a full-fledged tantrum with a child. It can leave both the parent and child tired, anxious, and upset regarding the momentary lapse on an uncontrolled emotional rollercoaster.

How Can I Help My ASD Child Better Control Tantrums

With children who have challenges with communication, these outbursts can be compounded as moods ebb and flow like waves seemingly without any apparent trigger or origin. Our children with autism have the synergistic challenges of trying to decipher and juggle emotion, frustration, and means of communication when tantruming.

All of us have been in that moment when the storms of emotion erupt. When our children scream, yell, and explode, and we cannot figure any manner of quelling that volcano. We try sometimes and find the right piece to the puzzle, and the storm passes with only a passing spray of anger. Other times, it seems as though the storm will last forever, and we just have to hold on until the sunshine of our child’s emotions arise again from that dark, gray sky.

Are there ways to deescalate or decrease the length of a tantrum? How do we communicate when we amid an emotional eruption? These questions are often at the top of the list when we discuss how to address the common issues surrounding temper tantrums.

The following are some means of dealing with the issue of temper tantrums:

First, is it a meltdown vs. truly a tantrum?

Often, the terms meltdown and tantrum are used synonymously. It is vital to recognize that these definitions share similarities, however, they must be contrasted. When we discuss a “meltdown,” a child has lost all control of space, time, and awareness. In these cases, we must ride the rollercoaster of emotion along with them and keep them safe. The best solution? Be proactive and avoid the process of transition from tantrum to all-out meltdown. Additionally, a meltdown can be exacerbated by being hungry, tired, or otherwise uncomfortable.

Tantrums, on the other hand, have a trigger and a purpose. These usually center around something that is wanted, or a task to be avoided, as well as to gain attention from someone or an audience. Remember, that negative, acting-out behaviors always provide a “bigger bang for the buck” among peers and those around you. That is why tantrums tend to be so very effective.

Don’t mirror the tantrum

Have you ever used the age-old adage to your eldest child, “You should know better…you are older (than the younger child)?” Yet, witnessing tantrums can bring even the most patient parent down to the level of a full-fledged tantrum themselves.

­Recognize that when we enter that negative emotional zone, our voice tone, body language, or actions have a way of mirroring the tantrum. When we speak of modeling, that tool is most vital during periods of when our children are least emotionally stable. Therefore, offer the least amount of emotion and words as possible in a tantrum to avoid fueling the fire of tantrums.

Be proactive to help prevent a tantrum

Avoiding a tantrum is the best way of not having to engage one at all. Some emotional outbursts can hence be avoided simply by proper planning. This is not always the case; however, there are ways to decrease the likelihood and/or severity of potential tantrums. Most importantly, it is vital to have a plan and try to not fly by the seat of your pants in circumstances of an impending tantrum.

For instance, we all have had the experience of going into the convenience store to pick up “a quick something we need” or going to the grocery store, without a list, because we “just need a few things.” There is nothing inherently wrong; of course, with doing this; however, when you walk into the store, your child can literally feel the overwhelming emotion of being a “kid in a candy store.” In fact­, that is why they have candy at the checkout lines. They hope to take advantage of your prevention of the public embarrassment of a tantrum by a quick sale of a candy bar or two.

Therefore, planning and giving a “mission plan,” of sorts, can be very useful. In other words, stating the specific intention of going into that store helps to develop an understanding. It develops an understanding of a routine and expectation for the transition of moving from the current situation to the next potential triggering environment. For example, “When we go into the convenience store, we are going in for coffee only.”

Plan ahead to avoid the tantrum of the future

Remember that tantrums have two distinct components

Imagine for a minute that we had a pot of boiling water, when we take that pot off the stove, it immediately stops boiling. However­, what happens when we place it back on that same burner? The water rapidly rolls to a boil yet again as though it never was off the heat.

This is often what happens with tantrums as well; let me explain. Tantrums are a complex two-part process. First, is the trigger that causes the child to begin a tantrum about some thought bouncing around in his/her head about how he/she has been wronged, or what is perceived as some lack of fairness in a situation?

The second element is a physiological response which is the adrenaline pumping to his/her extremities (and not into the brain), his/her body gearing up for “fight or flight,” and the heart beating out of the chest. We see the overt behavior; however, we do not see the complex internal process of what is going on to stoke the fires of the child’s anger.

That physiological response continues to linger long after the apparent thought process that started the tantrum is over. This means that children are then “primed” for another, or successive tantrums, once the first begins because that physiological response may never be allowed to cool to a baseline “room temperature,” so to speak.

Fortunately, Dr. Daniel Goleman, of the hit-book Emotional Intelligence, determined that it takes approximately 20 minutes for the child’s physiological thermostat to return to the stage before that tantrum trigger.[1]

This means that when you see a child seemingly “settled” down, wait 20 minutes to assure that the physiological waters are also calm as well.

Remember, there are always two parts of tantrums.

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Look at emotions not words

Often we grow frustrated in the case of tantrums and refusal because the child says, “I don’t care.” In doing so, we begin to wonder, what do we do with a child who seemingly does not care about anything? Nothing could possibly work in this case, right?

Children are smart little beings; if I was playing a card game with you, one of the best, and most practical, strategies I could employ would be not to let you see my cards. If I were foolish enough to do so, you would take advantage and use my cards against me every time. So, it is with the “I don’t care” tantrum, I don’t want you to know what works so saying “I don’t care” gives you a new clue. When you hear, “I don’t care,” think, “I do care, and I don’t want you to know that impacts me.”

In short, look at emotion, not statements in tantrums. Emotions are the symptoms of tantrums; words are not accurate in many of these cases. Think about when you, as a parent, have been truly enraged. Often, we say things that we do not mean; however, the anger we feel is the most accurate barometer of that reaction.

Avoid sarcasm with children with autism

Remember that children with special needs often have difficulty with the subtleties of communication.­ In the case of ­sarcasm, we tend to use this as an everyday aspect of our communication. In the case of tantrums, it falls apart quickly. For instance, if you ask, “How many times do I have to tell you to stop doing that?” If you get the answer, “Five.” One may be inclined to discipline the child for being a wisecracker. In reality, a question was asked, and an answer was correctly given.

Say, what you mean, and mean precisely what you say.

If you choose to debrief after a tantrum look deeper

After a tantrum may be a good time to discuss how the child handled his/her­ emotions. It is easy to pick out anger as the causing factor of a tantrum, however, delve deeper. Anger never exists solely in a tantrum. Anxiety, worry, feeling of a lack of control, sadness, and other potential emotions all sit at the root of anger. Discussing these will help get at the very core of what is going on with the trigger for such emotional outbursts. Just seeing these behaviors as anger misses the more important point of what is the cause.

Dive deeper, find more. Fear is often at the very root of most anger. If you think about this, it is often that tantruming is fear of moving away from something. The goal is to redirect that emotional force towards something positive. This, however, cannot be harnessed until the child is a little more in control of his/her behavior.

Tell the child what needs to be done

If you do engage in a tantrum, be aware of how many times the word “don’t” leaves your lips. We often tell children, “Don’t do this; don’t do that.” The issue is we are making a very big leap that the child hence knows what “to do.” When a child is in the throes of a tantrum, tunnel vision will ultimately limit the ability to know what to do. Therefore, telling him/her what not to do is not a useful intervention.

Tell the child specifically and simply what you want him/her to do.

Redirection is key

Tantrums can be like a car stuck in neutral; it simply cannot go anywhere or get out of its own way. When you have a stuck gear sometimes, it takes a strong response to move it out of that state.

Redirection can be a useful means of doing this. However, it means being creative and having a “toolbox” ahead of time of what possible items may be available for redirection. What are these tools? The “grease” to move to the next gear is individual to each child and his/her interests and needs. That being said, ask the child (when calm) what are potential items he/she can put in the tantrum box. For example, three books you like, three toys you like, three things you like to look at.

Know you have a ready box available for redirection proactively before the looming tantrum strikes.

See the forest for the trees

When a parent is in the middle of a tantrum, it can very much seem like nothing is working. A five-minute tantrum can seem like an hour and an hour tantrum can seem like a week. There is a very real belief when you­ are in the midst of a tantrum that you are making no progress. ­

Charting the amount of time and dates of tantrums help to see if the situation is improving. The challenge becomes if you jot the issues in your head, you will never get an accurate accounting of your progress in avoiding tantrums. Remember that progress is never a straight line up with children; it is a jagged line of improvement, a backslide, and then another improvement.

[1] Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books, 2006.

This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies

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