Practical Insight for Defusing Behavior Meltdowns

Jun 5

As a therapist who has the privilege of working with children and their wonderful families on the Autism Spectrum, I have seen my fair share of behavioral meltdowns. There are numerous reports, blogs, guides, etc. detailing “Steps to take in order to prevent a meltdown,” and as an OT and a mother, I am well aware of the importance of being proactive. But let’s be honest, meltdowns are going to happen! I am a firm believer in finding the root of why a child is breaking down (also known as the Escalation Cycle), but we also have to learn how to get through the meltdown. You could be following every rule that your OT, ST, PT, teacher and behavioral specialist taught you, but you know what? Kids are unpredictable.

This blog today will focus mostly on meltdown strategies for kids on the Autism Spectrum, but several strategies will be helpful for all children. One of the best things about working at Beyond Therapy, is the opportunity I have to work with kids not only at a clinic setting, but also at a nearby school. At school, I am able to observe and implement behavioral strategies I have learned from ABA and BCBA therapists who are in the classrooms with my patients. I owe a big thank you to those who have allowed me to learn, through trial and error, ways to handle negative behaviors.

Before discussing the helpful strategies for dealing with meltdowns, let’s visit a few scenarios:

Scenario One: Robby and his mother are in the grocery store when Robby sees his favorite fruit snacks on the shelf. His mother tries to grab a healthier box beside his favorite (the one Robby likes has red dye and she has learned this makes Robby aggressive- good job, mom!). But Robby isn’t having it, he jumps out of the grocery cart and begins to yell and stomp causing a scene.

Scenario Two: Lauren is playing in the living room at home when her dad asks her to clean up her toys for the third time, or he will get “rid of them and she will not get to play with them again.” Lauren ignores and refuses to obey until dad quickly comes and picks up the toys and places them in the toy bin across the room. This results in a stand-off between Lauren and her dad as he guards the toy bin.

Scenario Three: It is time to leave the dental office, as Ty and his mother have been waiting on his sister to get her teeth cleaned for the first time. The dentist office has some super fun toys that Ty does not want to leave. He throws a tantrum as his mother has to carry him out the door screaming and kicking for the light-up wand that belongs to the dental waiting room.

Normally after reading these scenarios, you would be given a list of actions you could do next time to prevent these behaviors. Prevention is wonderful, especially if you have time to plan for these scenarios. However, sometimes meltdowns are just unavoidable. Here is a list of go-to steps/strategies to memorize when your child is melting down:

  1. Do not try to reason with them before they calm down. The logical part of our brains do not work when we are emotional.
  2. Avoid making demands. Behavioral specialist and mother, Nicole Day states, “Place all other expectations on hold, other than getting your child to calm down.” Telling them to calm down is still a demand.
  3. Do not raise your voice. This can lead to increased over-stimulation. People are more inclined to listen when someone is speaks softly and calmly.
  4. Validate their feelings but not their actions. Everyone has a right to feel a certain way. For example: “it makes sense, Robby, for you to be upset about not getting your fruit snacks because it’s hard not to get what we want sometimes.” Remember, “it’s your child’s response to their emotions that needs to change, not the emotions.”
  5. Get on their level. Kneel so you can look them in the eye instead of hovering over them.
  6. Distraction and Removal. Distance your child from the situation/desired object and offer something else to get their attention. This does not mean your child is “getting away with” the negative behavior. It is important to address the behavior once they are calm, remember there is no reasoning right now. Removing them from the situation may actually be the discipline they need right at the moment.
  7. Sometimes complete silence is your friend. This may also be a good indicator if your child is melting down for attention.
  8. Decrease stimulation. TV, radio, computer screen, other kids, etc. can all be over-stimulating.
  9. Visual input. Preferably a sensory tool. This is not to be used as positive reinforcement for the behavior, but only used when your child recognizes it as something that makes them feel calm.
  10. Follow through. This comes last because all previous points must be met prior to this. Though it is last, it is still important. Dad telling Lauren he will “get rid of her toys,” is a statement that requires follow-through action if the demand is not met. Dad may take her toys and hide them in a location unknown to Lauren. This is also demonstrating to Lauren that the meltdown has a consequence. This action must happen immediately and in view of the child.

I hope these strategies are helpful. If you have any questions, or want more insight into strategies, please do not hesitate to reach out to your therapist. Just remember that we all have good and bad days. Everybody deserves some grace, yourself included!

Massey Mitchell, OTR/L, is an Occupational Therapist at Beyond Therapy. Massey is certified in Handwriting Without Tears learning techniques and has special interests in Autism Spectrum disorders. She works with our patients at Spectrum Academy and at Beyond Therapy clinic. Massey is native of Jackson, Ms, and currently lives in Flowood with her husband, son, and their two dogs.