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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

A Crash Course in Meltdown Management

This post is part one of a three part series called A Crash Course in Meltdown Management Series by Karen Wang

Part One: How to manage and prevent a Temper Tantrum
Part Two: Sensory Meltdowns: 26 Sensory Integration Tools for Meltdown Management
Part Three: How to manage and prevent a panic attack 

A few weeks ago, I asked another Friendship Circle parent if she could suggest some writing topics for this blog.  She responded without hesitating, “I’d love the following article: How to handle meltdowns on playdates and not scare away the other kid or parent forever.”I smiled, because I myself have been in that situation many times.  And the answer is:

It’s complicated.

I don’t have any academic degrees in psychology or biology.  I’m the mother of a child with autism.  I’ve tried countless  approaches to managing the outbursts, and I’m still trying new approaches at every opportunity.  I try to be patient, but I am only human.  I get upset, too.  Happily, I’ve found many techniques that work for my child – even on playdates! – and they may work for other children, too.  Here is part one of my crash course in meltdown management.

Rule #1

It’s not about you. This is about helping your child.  The purpose of managing a child’s meltdowns is to reduce their frequency, duration and severity by modeling respect and empathy.

Rule #2:

Determine the motivation for the meltdowns. I have observed three basic types in my child, although I know that there are other varieties out there — for example, I do not have experience with rages.  My three categories are: temper tantrums, sensory meltdowns and panic attacks.  Each type has different causes and requires different treatment.

Part One: Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are caused by feelings of powerlessness and loss of control.  No one, not even an influential adult, can control everything all the time; but it’s a tough lesson for a small person with no authority over his or her environment.  I have noticed that temper tantrums occur most frequently during the month before a child makes a significant developmental leap of some kind, such as learning to walk or speak in sentences or dress herself or read sight words.

Some children are able to turn their tears on and off at will during tantrums, which can be infuriating for parents.  Most pediatricians recommend leaving a child alone in a safe place such as a crib or playpen during a tantrum, then talking to the child about it afterwards.  However, I found this method to be counterproductive and dangerous for my child.  It was counterproductive because it diminished my son’s trust in me – he felt betrayed and abandoned, which escalated and prolonged the tantrums.  The tantrums also became more frequent.  It was dangerous because once my child got an adrenaline rush, the fight or flight instinct took over, and no crib, playpen or closed door could contain him.  He was in danger of injuring himself.

An Emotional Sneeze

My eyes were opened to the developmental necessity of temper tantrums when I read the article “Cry For Connection” by Patty Wipfler in the November/December 2002 issue of Mothering magazine.  Here the author compares a tantrum to “an emotional sneeze — a natural reaction meant to clear out foreign matter.”  She proposes witnessing and validating the child’s feelings while keeping the child safe from harming himself.  She suggests moving the child to a quiet place, not as a punishment, but for privacy and dignity, with the parent remaining close at all times.

Temper Tantrums in Public

In a public place, this usually means going back to your car or to a quiet side of a building outdoors.  At a playdate, it would mean going home or asking your friends to come back on another day.  Self-confidence is the trick to not frightening away friends or strangers in this situation.  At home, the best place for a tantrum is in a bedroom where a child can pound and stomp on a mattress.

But, wait!  Isn’t this the fast track to spoiling my child and teaching him to manipulate me?

In her book “Discipline Without Distress,” Judy Arnall writes, “Tantrums are not misbehavior, nor are they abnormal or in need of correction.  Children punished for temper tantrums learn not to express feelings.  They learn how to suppress them, which is not healthy for the body or mind.”  She advises parents to “stay with your no,” gently and firmly.

Write A Story

I have taken this idea further by helping my autistic son write about his tantrums, starting when he was 2 years old (his hyperlexia gave him the ability to spell and type out words as a toddler).  His emotion stories are in the style of social stories, written in the first person using simple language.  Each story starts with the problem and ends with the resolution.  This was his first story:

Once upon a time, I was crying.  I was sad.
Mommy gave me a hug, a kiss and a snuggle.
Mommy sang a song.
I became happy again.

We read and re-read that story day after day.  We kept adding more stories to the collection over the years as my son recalled the details of more temper tantrums.  The stories became his autobiography, and he began to develop empathy for others through his stories.  My son’s temper tantrums had real meaning to him, and were crucial to his progress in language and social skills.

Part 2 of the Crash Course in Meltdown Management will explain sensory meltdowns and offer suggestions for your homemade sensory integration toolkit.

Karen Wang

Written on December 6, 2011 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"