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Calming the Storm

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by Jed Baker, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| January/February 2013

If your child continues to have tantrums, it pays to know what the triggers are so you can prevent the meltdowns.


You’re in the supermarket with your kid, trying to get groceries when it starts—he begins to whine for candy. You calmly explain, “No junk food before lunch.” He doesn’t accept it and starts crying and falling to the floor. You try to ignore it and remind yourself that it can be harder for a child on the spectrum, but soon your child is grabbing at your ankles. Other shoppers begin to stare. What started as a minor irritation for you is growing into rage. Now you have your own meltdown, screaming at your child. Adding fuel to the fire, you thereby escalate your child’s tantrums and create more of the embarrassment that spurred your anger.

How do you handle the discomfort of these moments? If you can’t tolerate the uneasiness, you might give in and let your kid have the candy. But soon your kid will act up again because he learned that tantrums pay off. Or, you can hold firm and weather the storm to teach your child that tantrums don’t work.
Yet, what if the storm lasts an hour, or, worse yet, tantrums occur every time you go to the store.

When tantrums turn to uncontrolled meltdowns or reoccur despite consistent limit setting, you need an alternative to traditional discipline. You need a way to calm your child in the moment and to prevent the meltdowns from happening in the future.

Controlling Your Own Temper
To parent thoughtfully, you must be able to control your own emotions. Screaming usually just intensifies children’s agitation. All children have occasional meltdowns because they lack the skills to cope with certain challenging situations. Keep your emotions in check by anticipating these problems, having a thoughtful plan to handle them, and maintaining hope that it will get better. If this sounds difficult, it is.

Calming the Storm
A crying baby can be soothed by being bounced on a lap, receiving a teddy bear, or getting gently rocked in your arms. The art of distraction can be equally effective for older kids. Back in the supermarket where your kid was screaming because he did not get candy, you pull out a favorite toy or you take him to the car and pop in his favorite CD, and he begins to calm. This is not rewarding his tantrum as you will not give him the candy. Instead of trying to reason with a screaming child, use your kid’s interests to distract him, and later when your child is calm, you can discuss other ways to avoid meltdowns.

Preventing Future Storms
If your child continues to have tantrums, it pays to know what the triggers are so you can prevent the meltdowns. Try keeping a diary documenting when problematic behaviors arise, what preceded your child’s behavior, and how you reacted. The diary will give you clues about what is causing the meltdowns. You can also keep a digital diary using the No More Meltdowns app (at the Apple Store), which stores information about your child’s behavior and analyzes the triggers to problem behaviors.

The following are some of the most common triggers to meltdowns for kids on the spectrum:

Biological. Do meltdowns occur when your child is hungry or tired? If so, feed your child before an outing and do not venture out when your child is exhausted.
Sensory. Do problems happen when your child is overstimulated by noise, lights, or crowds? Is your child bored? You may need to adjust the stimulation to meet your kid’s needs, such as by limiting overstimulating situations or giving the child things to do when he appears bored.
Demands. Does a meltdown result when your child is asked to do something like complete homework, do chores, or get ready in the morning? Consider whether your child knows how to do these tasks or needs them simplified. Visual cues or written rules for how to complete a task can help. When it comes to homework, kids often refuse to do it rather than admit they need help. You may need to teach your child that it is fine to ask for assistance.
Waiting. Do problems occur when your child doesn’t get what he wants immediately? You can make waiting easier by using a timer and establishing a clear time that he will get what he wants. At the supermarket, state ahead of time what snacks the child will get and when, so there are no surprises in the store. You can also give your child activities to keep him occupied while waiting, like helping to find items or playing with a toy.
Threats to Self-Esteem. Sometimes meltdowns occur when kids feel bad about themselves after losing a game, making a mistake, or being teased. Encourage your child to think differently about these situations. Teach him: “If you lose a game and don’t get mad, you can win a friend because other people will like playing with you, and mistakes are good because they help you learn.”
Offer incentives for when your child loses or makes mistakes without getting upset so that you reward self-control rather than perfection. With regard to teasing, help children understand that it is the teaser who has the problem, not the child being teased.
Unmet Needs for Attention. Do tantrums occur when your child is denied attention? When he craves parental attention, arrange special playtimes with your kid. In addition, your child needs to be taught the words to ask to play rather than to do bothersome things to get attention.

Tantrums can be escalated or calmed. Your child and you will feel a lot better when you control your own emotions, use your child’s special interests to distract him from disappointments, and anticipate triggers to meltdowns by having a thought-out plan ready to carry out. In future Positive Behavior Strategies columns, I will address specific triggering situations and how to develop a prevention plan for each.


Jed Baker is the author of five books, including No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-of-Control Behavior. Dr. Baker directs the Social Skills Training Project. Visit his website at http://jedbaker.com/.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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