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8 Calming Strategies for Meltdowns

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Meltdowns are something my child and I deal with, at times, on a daily basis. It is a part of life, and you get used to them and begin to develop strategies to help your children.

Eventually, you can get to the point where you are able to recognize when a meltdown is about to occur and may be able to diffuse the situation before the meltdown becomes full-blown. I’ve found it’s all about timing and getting to know your child’s cues.

With my daughter O and my son L, there are certain things that just work, so I thought I would share the calming strategies that help us through meltdowns. Your strategies might be different from ours, and that is to be expected. Autism is called a spectrum disorder for a reason! Most of the time our strategies work, but there are times when all we can do is ride out the storm.

1. Remain calm. Always.

The main strategy we try to remember is remain calm, no matter what the situation is. This might seem like common sense, and it may be, but at times it can be incredibly difficult to remain calm — especially when your child is struggling.

We worked out very early on that raising our voices just didn’t work. O and L weren’t shocked into silence, it had the opposite effect. The louder we raised our voices, the louder they became.

By remaining calm, we’ve found we can reduce the amount of stress that is placed on O and L. The last thing a child having a meltdown needs is more stress.

2. Essential oils.

Late last year, one of my friends (thank you, Amanda) put me onto essential oils. She gave us four small blends to start off with. I will admit I was a little skeptical at first. How on Earth would oils help my little superheroes? But at that point, we had tried a lot of other things and hadn’t found anything that worked.

I still don’t know how they work, but they seem to help. Both O and L look forward to getting their oils. At nighttime, I just roll the bottle behind their ears or on the soles of their feet. The oil doesn’t help them to get to sleep, but it does relax them. I have also tried the relaxation blend, and I must admit the lovely aroma is enough to relax me. The oils have become part of their bedtime routine.

O also has a blend to assist her with her anxiety, and it does seem to help her in a small way.

I’ve since added a few more blends to our collection. You name the ailment or condition, there is probably an oil or a blend that can help. We’ve tried a migraine blend, a stress blend, one for coughs and they all seem to help.

They are worth a try if you’re out of options.

3. Know your child’s triggers and cues.

These didn’t take long to work out. Every time we went to a large, crowded, noisy shopping centre with L, he would be in meltdown mode within about 10 minutes of entering the complex. We then worked out that he was in sensory overload. L would give us cues — and still does — when he is in sensory overload and we know that when he starts showing those cues, it’s time to get him out and we only have a very small window to do so.

Knowing your child’s triggers means you can either avoid certain situations or prepare your child beforehand. If we know we have to go some where that ordinarily would cause L to have a meltdown, we prepare him beforehand so he knows what is going to happen. We also take along L’s sensory bag so he can self-regulate.

L’s sensory bag contains his weighted blanket, a pair of block-out ear muffs and a marble maze. The marble maze is a great fidget toy; L has to concentrate on getting the marble from one end of the maze to the other. By concentrating on what his hands are doing, he can block out some of the noise and busyness around him.

Other sensory toys we have used are calm down bottles (warm water, glitter glue and fine glitter), a small plastic bottle with rice in it to shake, squishy plastic balls, plastic chew necklaces and a peek-a-boo bag (fabric bag with a clear plastic window and the bag is filled with beads and small toys to find). Basically, anything that O and L can squash, squeeze, shake or manipulate. All of these assist O and L to focus on anything other than the sensory overload.

Both O and L have various stims depending on the mood they are in. Stims or stimming is a self-stimulatory behavior and is considered a way in which people with autism can calm, stimulate and self-regulate their own emotions. L’s therapists have described stimming as a way that L decompresses and releases excess energy. L also stims to calm down — it may sound strange, but by spinning he can help himself to calm down. O chews on her shirt when she starts getting anxious. Stimming can also help other emotions to show. O bounces when she is excited and swings her arms when she is nervous.

It might take a while to work out your child’s triggers and cues, but it is something that pays off in the long run. It can make outings a whole lot easier on your kids.

4. Pick your battles.

This may be fairly obvious, but at times I think it is something we overlook. O, L and I certainly pick our battles. I know if I skip O’s bedtime ritual, then she will not go to sleep. Spending the extra five minutes to run through her bedtime ritual means she’ll go to sleep quickly and quietly. And it means I get an extra five minutes of cuddles!

I would love O and L to eat a meal I cooked every night of the week, but there are some nights when I am so exhausted from the day that it really isn’t worth the stress of a meltdown to make them eat. We do have a deal going that if they try at least a mouthful of something on the plate, they can then have the good old faithful baked beans or spaghetti.

If you know you are exhausted, it might be good for your own sanity to just let them go. Know which battles you can pick, it might just make your day or night a little quieter.

5. Be there for your child.

Your child might not want you in the room with them when they’re in meltdown mode, but be nearby for them.

Be there to make sure they don’t injure themselves or others. By being there, you can reassure your child that everything will be alright.

I hope by being nearby, on some conscious level, O and L know I am there if they need me.

I don’t sit right next to O or L, as that just seems to agitate them. O and L both don’t like to be touched while they are in the midst of a meltdown; they become quite distressed. I stay within eyesight of them so if need be I can remove objects from them or stop them from hurting themselves and I can comfort them immediately if they choose to come to me.

6. Tantrum or meltdown?

One of the major keys is knowing the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. Children with autism can be prone to meltdowns, but they can also have tantrums. The way we deal with a tantrum is completely different to how we deal with a meltdown.

I’ve found the most obvious difference between the two is your child’s ability to talk to you during the event. If they are responding to you, I’ve found they’re more than likely having a tantrum. If they are not able to respond to you, chances are they may be having a meltdown.

O makes demands during a tantrum. If we were to give into her demands, we might be reinforcing that behavior. Next time she knows if she says, “If you give me such and such, I will calm down,” she’ll just keep making demands until we cave. During a meltdown, she makes unrecognizable sounds.

By knowing the difference between the two, we are able to handle both effectively.

7. Behavior is not done on purpose; it is done for a purpose.

This is a rather important point and something I think all parents can use reminding of. It is something I regularly have to remind myself of. When O or L are in meltdown mode, I have to remind myself, in that moment, neither of them may be able to find the words to express how they are feeling or what they need.

I guess a good analogy is when a baby cries. Babies can cry for various reasons — when they’re hungry, they’re tired, they have a dirty nappy, they’re over-stimulated, they just want their mom or dad, etc. Parents, very early in, can often figure out what each cry means. A baby may not be able to do much more than cry to express what they need. We as parents need to determine what each cry means so we’re able to respond to them appropriately.

I’ve found the situation is similar with a child having a meltdown.

It can be difficult not to take what the child says and does personally. I know O and L don’t mean any malice when they’re having a meltdown; they’re not in control of their own bodies.

A meltdown can be their way of saying “I am over stimulated” or “I have used up all my energy at school and have none left for home” or “I am scared or worried or anxious.”

No child has a meltdown on purpose. I believe the meltdown serves as a form of communication. You just have to work out what they are trying to tell you.

8. Tell your child that you love them. No. Matter. What.

A child needs to be loved unconditionally; I believe that’s our job as parents. To show them they are loved, no matter what they may do or say during difficult moments.

After O or L has had a meltdown, I always make sure they know I love them. I think it is incredibly important for both of them to hear the words “I love you” after they have expended so much emotional, mental and physical energy.

I feel they need to know I am there for them, no matter what. That I will love them and be there for them, always. That loving them is what I’m here for, no matter what.

Image via Thinkstock.

A version of this post originally appeared on Raising My Little Superheroes.

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Originally published: January 4, 2017
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