Children With Special Needs: Tantrum Management

How do you deal with the sometimes colossal tantrums of your child with autism? What about the mild tantrums? Are you able to recognize the buildup before a tantrum? Can you predict a tantrum? For example, if you know the news you are about to give your child is not going to be well-received, do you cringe in anticipation of an oncoming tantrum?

Tantrums can vary. I used the word “colossal” above knowing that even typical parents have to deal with the big ones. I believe autism parents, however, deal with tantrums more frequently. Even though tantrums of children with special needs can vary in magnitude, it’s the frequency that can wear down even the toughest autism parent. Add in the threat of a potential tantrum and autism parents deal with a lot of tantrum-related stress.

People with autism have difficulty learning how to communicate and socialize. Learning how to communicate comes with its share of confusion. Children with autism are often very confused about what is being said to them and why. They are confused about how to get what they want or how to behave properly. Additionally, they have a harder time watching their adult role models and simply replicating what they see and hear. Autistic people are much more distracted and/or more focused on things rather than people. It’s often their world or no world.

Even if they’re receiving behavioral therapy, they may have trouble reacting when they are told they have done something wrong or have not earned their preferred toy. They may lose what little ability they have at communicating because they are so focused on what was just “lost.” They do not know how to self-manage. Adding to their confusion, they may also become very uncomfortable. So, what happens? They have a tantrum.

I believe I speak for many autism parents when I say it really does seem easy for our kids to elevate to a tantrum. Yelling is under their control. So is wild arm flapping and kicking. So is crying. They may not know exactly why they are responding this way except that they are at their wits end about something and having a tantrum is the only response they know.

Tantrums are very disruptive. The way your child is reacting may reflect badly on you. Your child, for example, may not understand why it is considered inappropriate to yell, “When is this going to be over?” in a small, hot church during your friend’s wedding (yep, happened to us). All they know is they are hot and scrunched tightly into a pew in a church with too many people for them to be able to handle this situation. So, they respond the only way they know how.

How do you deal with tantrums?

When our child was much younger, he often responded with a tantrum because he lacked the ability to communicate with us or even understand us. He lacked the necessary vocabulary to express himself. Typically, his tantrums were related to preferred items, or what he was being denied in regards to a preferred item.

With my experience, I’d like to give three suggestions for attacking the problem of a tantrum:

Take a Time Out

The first one has been used for years and years. “Go to your room and sit on your bed until you calm down.” (Remember that from your childhood? I do.)

These days, we think of this approach as a “time out.” The child is told, “Just sit there and get it all out.” And, typically they wail and wail until they finally calm down.

When our child was very young, his tantrums were quite different. Back then, he easily pulled out a big one. He would yell and scream and kick. (Typically, the therapists got the worst of the kicking rather than Mommy or Daddy.)

Because he did have issues with tantrums, my son’s DTT therapists initiated time outs. The therapists would increase the duration of the time out if our son was not complying or not calming down, or if he repeated the same behavior that got him the time out in the first place. For example, if the behavior happened once, the time out would be two minutes. If the same behavior happened again, the length of the time out would increase to three minutes and so forth.

Eventually, the threat of a time out worked wonders for controlling an oncoming tantrum. By that time our child hated time outs so much that he began to work hard to avoid them.

“Smell the Flowers” Approach

Second, I have used an approach that is relatively popular within the autism world. This approach is sometimes referred to as “smell the flowers.”

The expression “smell the flowers” is an instruction that means the following:  Ask the person to take a huge breath through their nose, as if they were taking a huge breath of a pleasant smelling flower. Then, you ask the person to release that huge breath through their mouth.

You get them to do this again and again until they begin to calm down.

I continue to use “smell the flowers” to this day. My child knows what I mean when I ask him to “smell the flowers.” If I see the build-up of a tantrum happening, see the tears form, hear the voice cracking, I’ll instruct him to “smell the flowers.” It often works.

Interestingly, my child’s tantrums have changed over the years. My now eight-year-old child will still have an occasional blow-up. Yet these days not only are his tantrums more mild but I believe he has discovered a new level of dealing with his emotions. He is truly discovering a way to handle his escalating emotions on his own terms.

How does he do this? He negotiates.

I feel my child is now so interested in trying to negotiate with us, he works even harder to control his emotions. Not that the tantrum doesn’t happen. His emotions will still overwhelm him and he still has to go through the “smell the flowers” routine to calm down.

But after my child is calm, we talk (and negotiate). We have taught our child that we are always going to talk to him. He expects this and it is now a part of how he deals with things.

This works for our child because he has a desire to fully understand an issue. He likes to attack it from different angles. He takes his time to think about the problem. He talks and negotiates. This approach seems to work for him and we approve as well.

Use an Earnings Chart

The last suggestion I have for you to help curb tantrums is to consider the use of an earnings chart. We began using an earnings chart long ago as a way to curb our child’s tantrums and/or his bad behavior.

Our earnings chart is based on a rewards system. Our child’s preferred items are considered privileges, or things that he has to earn with good behavior. This includes lessoning or avoiding a tantrum (and these days discussing why there was a problem).

Tantrum management for our child occurred through hard work, time, lots of discussions, lots of adjustments, and patience. The stress of a tantrum or a tantrum-in-the-making is not pleasant for the child or the caregiver. Dealing with a tantrum, on any level, is never easy.

I hope my suggestions help.

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