“There are some things I can’t control, & that’s just the way it is.”
When I was a kid I used to watch a cartoon called Bugs Bunny and there was a character on there called the Tasmanian Devil. Many of you know the cartoon character I’m speaking of. He was the ferocious, crazed, wild eyed, short tempered beast with little patience who had the ability to create a vortex with his own body. He is often the character that comes to mind when my son is in the middle of a meltdown, only I don’t find my son’s actions to be as amusing as those of the cartoon character (at least not during a meltdown that is).
Meltdown… the word every parent with a special needs child fears. It’s difficult to imagine anything more stressful, painful, frightening, confusing, or depressive as witnessing and helping your child through a meltdown. They can be triggered by something as paltry as being told they cannot have a doughnut and can last anywhere from thirty minutes to six hours. Children experiencing a meltdown have little or no control over their actions.
Meltdown or Tantrum There is a difference between a meltdown and a tantrum. Tantrums are a pretty straightforward occurrence that happens when a child is not getting their way. Tantrums can be challenging and stressful as well, but there are some pretty distinguishing differences between a meltdown and a tantrum.
- When a child has a tantrum they will often look to see if anyone is paying attention and if they’re getting the reaction they seek from whoever their behavior is being displayed for.
- Most times, (not always), the child having a tantrum is careful to not obtain an injury during the middle of their fit.
- A child who throws a tantrum will attempt to use the situation to his or her benefit (especially if your’re in a public setting).
- As soon as your child gets his way during a tantrum, or realizes their antics just aren’t working, the tantrum will spontaneously resolve itself as quickly as it evolved.
- Most tantrums are your child’s way of exerting some form of control over you or the situation. They can also be a way of punishing you for not not bending to their will.
- Tantrums in children usually subside as they grow older or at the very least they happen less frequently.
- In essence, tantrums are the ultimate form of manipulation for children and the desired outcome is to get their own way.
- Children with Autism or mental illness couldn’t care less about whose looking during a meltdown, nor do they care if they’re garnering a positive or negative reaction from those around them.
- Children in the midst of a meltdown do not consider whether or not harm or injury is going to come to them as a result of their extreme behavior. Sometimes these meltdowns do result in injury to the child or those who are present during the meltdown.
- Children having tantrums can usually be soothed and talked down, whereas a child having a meltdown cannot. I have found with my own child the more I try to calm him the more enraged he becomes.
- When a child has a meltdown it is as though a switch has flipped in their brain. They are no longer in control of themselves or their thoughts. The child you know and love has temporarily disappeared and a violent out of control version is in their place.
- Children having meltdowns do not care about the social circumstances. They are not concerned about where they are or who is watching as the behavior cycles further and further out of control.
- A meltdown usually occurs because the child feels a lack of control, an inability to verbalize their needs, overwhelming anxiety brought on by their surroundings, a perceived injustice, or much like the tantrum, an inability to get their own way.
- Meltdowns can last upwards of six hours or more. I have had to take my son to the emergency room on numerous occasions because he couldn’t calm himself down and was becoming a danger to himself or others.
- Meltdowns are NOT a form of manipulation, but instead an inability for the child to establish self-control under what they deem as stressful or (in my child’s case), frightening circumstances.
My son’s meltdowns can border on the extreme as do many other people’s children. During a meltdown in the car one day my son tried to strangle me while I was driving on the freeway (one reason why he is no longer allowed to sit behind me when we travel anywhere). He has threatened his sister and myself with knives, and once with a box cutter. He has grabbed the steering wheel and tried to crash us into oncoming traffic. He has threatened and tried to hurl himself from a moving vehicle. He has thrown and or tried to break anything not strapped down in our home. He has kicked both myself and my husband. He has punched us, bitten us, screamed that we were hurting and or abusing him when we tried to restrain him for his own safety during a meltdown. The latter resulted in the police being called by a neighbor thinking we were beating our son. Fortunately for us, the police were well aware of our circumstances and knew we were not the evil abusers my son was making us out to be. During meltdowns my son and other children can say some of the most belittling, hurtful, and hateful statements. I often say living with a child who has rages and meltdowns is comparative to living with an extremely abusive spouse. The only difference is, you can get rid of the spouse, you can’t get rid of your child. nor would I want to in spite of the difficult position we are often in. He is my child and I love him without conditions.
So what can you do to keep your child, yourself, and others safe during meltdowns? Below are some of the tools we use in our own home that have been given to us by in-home care staff or we read about.
- First and foremost, try to remain calm. I know that is so much easier said than done, but if you are as enraged as your child or take their behavior personally, it can only end badly.
- If your child has meltdowns often and threatens you or others with knives, remove them or have them locked away. We no longer keep sharp objects in or home or we keep the ones we need locked up. It isn’t just for your safety, but the safety of your child.
- Try and prepare your child in advance for any changes in their schedule. Children with mental health concerns or who have Autism do best with a structured routine and anything that throws their schedule off can lead to a potential meltdown.
- Create a safe space in your home where your child can go when having a meltdown. Stay close by to ensure that your child doesn’t hurt themselves. If you can’t get them to a safe room be sure wherever they are at, they won’t be able to endanger themselves or others.
- If your child’s behavior is so out of control that they become a danger to themselves and others which causes you to call the police ask to have a CIT officer come to your home. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Training and these officers are more likely to handle the situation responsibly and with compassion. If you don’t have one of these officers in your area make sure the 911 operator knows your child has mental health challenges so the officer does as well.
- Try and have a plan in place prior to meltdowns.
- When your child is calm have he or she make a list of soothing options. When you feel your child may be at the beginning of a meltdown try and have your child implement their soothing options before it becomes full blown. Once the meltdown spirals out of control soothing options no longer work.
- Pick your battles.
- When your child is able to use soothing options and head off a meltdown be sure to acknowledge that with positive reinforcements.
Living with a child who can turn into the Tasmanian Devil on a dime, can be challenging and stressful. Make sure that while you’re taking care of your child you’re also taking care of yourself. Your health and well-being are just as important as your child’s.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”