As the mother of a child with autism, I can tell you with no false modesty that I have mad meltdown skills. My son was three at his diagnosis, and at that time his vocabulary consisted of a handful of words – and they weren't always used contextually. He tantrumed dozens of times a day, and often for no cause that I could define or for the most innocuous reasons: his shirtsleeve got wet when he washed his hands, the smell of the cleaner they just used on the counter at the drugstore set him off, or I gave him his sippy cup with the wrong color lid.
Once he started tantruming, it would often move into full-on meltdown, and a lot of the things I did with his sister when she misbehaved were ineffective. A time-out didn't work because he threw himself from the chair. He self-harmed, which was another issue entirely. It was frustrating for both of us, but eventually, I learned how to read him, and I learned how to manage him – and me, in the process.
Here are a few of the things that I learned in managing serious meltdowns:
• Stay calm. My mother used to say "It takes two people to have a fight." If you're screaming as hard as your child is, you're letting him know you're out of control, too. He needs your stability right now. Take a deep breath, reach down into that well of inner strength and remind yourself that you need to address this from a place of love, not anger or exasperation. I know that's not easy to do – especially if you're out in public and everyone's giving you the "Hey lady, control your kid!" look, but you've got to do it anyway.
• Deal with the meltdown before you address bad behavior. This one is critical. My son and his sister fight just like any other siblings, and just like any other siblings, they both know exactly how to push each other's buttons. Once he starts melting down, he can't focus on anything else but how angry and upset he is. He has to calm before he can take correction of any kind. I put my arms around him and hold him as I rub his back. I get him a drink of water. I've even been known to sing to him, if that's what it takes. Once he's calmer, I sit him down, and then we talk about how he shouldn't have thrown that toy, pushed his sister, or screamed in her face. We also deal with consequences (apologies, loss of privileges, etc.) Trying to have any kind of a rational conversation with an irrational child is an exercise in futility. Treat the meltdown first.
• If you're out in public, remove the child from the venue, if possible. I've carried, pulled and yes, even sort-of dragged my children (both of them!) out to the car, leaving a full cart of groceries in the grocery store. I've asked a waitress to box my food and told her I'd be back in ten minutes to get it. I've apologized to front desk receptionists and asked them to reschedule our appointment. Luckily, I haven't had to do it too often, once they got used to the idea that Mom meant it when she said we were leaving. Once we're in the car, they can scream and yell their heads off. Eventually, they get tired of it. Being on display while your kid is carrying on is brutal, and the extra censure you're feeling (or think you're feeling) from everyone around you is only going to make you more desperate and not as in control.
• Derail that train of thought before the train leaves the station. If you're not able to just pick up and leave – and face it, sometimes you can't – squat down, get your face right in his face and (this is going to sound crazy) blow on him. Or hum. Cross your eyes and make a goofy face. What you're looking for is distraction – derail his train of thought for a moment, if you can. Sure, you'll look stupid, but you're already feeling like you're being judged by everyone around you, so who cares? I once whispered in my kid's ear "If you keep that up, you're gonna make me fart." He stopped screaming immediately and snorted with laughter. Every time he tried to whine or raised his voice, I made a goofy, panicked face and crossed my legs and he laughed. People in the supermarket might have thought I was a lunatic, but he forgot what he was mad about so I didn't care. You can always address his bad behavior when you get out to the car and he’s a lot calmer.
• Don't be afraid to physically restrain a harmful child. And by restrain, I don't mean with ropes or chains, of course (no matter how tempting that fleeting thought can be sometimes). This isn't always going to be easy, and you might feel like you're wrestling a tiger, but you also can't let your kid slam his head into the floor over and over, or keep taking swings at his sibling. Some autism parents use a weighted blanket to help calm a child in sensory overload or meltdown, and that technique works wonders for most kids. Just get a heavy quilt and wrap them in it, or if that's not handy, sit them on your lap (or get down on the floor with them) and wrap your arms around them, enclosing their arms. Hold as tightly as you need to (without causing them pain, of course) for as long as you need to. Sometimes it helps to rock a little. Get ready for your other kids to voice an objection – it looks like you're coddling and rewarding bad behavior to them – but you're the parent, here. Your objective is to calm and sometimes, restraint is the only thing that works. Once the child is calm, then you can administer the time-out and/or make them apologize for their actions.
Dealing with a child in meltdown is no fun for anyone – least of all the child. They need your help to regulate until they develop the skills to do so themselves. Above all, remember that their tantrums aren't a reflection on how good a parent you are. Different kids tantrum for different reasons, and as long as you're addressing it and helping them find a way through it and to a calmer place safely, you're doing your job – your sometimes thankless, sometimes frustrating, but you wouldn't-trade-it-for-the-world job.
Then pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and remember how sweet your kids look when they sleep. It helps. It really does.