First, I’m going to explain my basic mentality behind “meltdowns” and “challenging behavior.”
All behavior is communication
Let me repeat that.
ALL BEHAVIOR IS COMMUNICATION!
Therefore, the first step of a meltdown is to cut it off at the pass. Make sure that your child doesn’t feel like they need to get to that point. For kids who are non-verbal or who struggle with communication may not be able to tell you what upsets them, so you may have to do some guesswork. Think back to past meltdowns. What are some things that set your child off? Why might they have been upset?
Things to look for include external factors, like the weather or changes to their routine. They also could be internal. Has your child been sick lately? Might they have a headache? Hungry? Poor sleeping? Keep a journal of meltdowns, when they happen, what happens during, and likely antecedents (things that happen leading up to the meltdown). This will help inform you for later meltdowns. Although it can be a pain to monitor all of this, the payoff is huge. Although you obviously cannot ensure that none of these things never happen (it will rain again, no matter how much you and your kid hope it does not), being able to prepare your child for these inevitabilities will pay off huge in the long run.
So, despite your best efforts, this is not overnight, and there will still be some meltdowns. How you handle these in the moment?
Step one is almost always reduce your verbal input to your child. You’re not going to be able to talk your child down from this by using a lot of words. Telling them to calm down, act nice, asking them what is wrong–all of these things will be confusing and add to the already high level of overload. Take a deep breath, and close your mouth.
Make sure the area is safe and secure. Make sure your child isn’t hurting themselves as much as possible and isn’t in a place where they can hurt anybody else. Step back and give some time if you can. At home, this can be easy. You can even set up a “safe place” and start teaching your child when they are not upset to go there. This can have soft furniture and places to scream and get upset without hurting themselves or others.
Away from home, this is less easy. Your child may disrupt others and this may be embarrassing or harmful or dangerous. People may try to “help” or may judge you. The important thing to remember is that you have this. If you can guide your child away from the location before a full meltdown occurs or as soon as possible afterwards, this is ideal. However, don’t let this become a deterrent to ever going anywhere again. People may judge but more and more people are becoming aware that kids who have special needs may behave in atypical ways. If people try to help, let them know that you have this handled (if you do; if you seriously need help, by all means, get help). If someone does help, make sure that they know the steps to reduce the meltdown.
Once your child has begun to calm down a bit, you can speak quietly and calmly. Use a slower voice than you would typically use. Give choices, using as few words as possible. Don’t talk about the meltdown or ask questions about what happened. Your child is likely to go back into meltdown if you do this.
Afterwards, journal what happened. Try and come up with what caused the meltdown and strategies to avoid this in the future.
This, of course, all sounds far simpler than it is in practice, but really will reduce the number of meltdowns and will reduce how intense they are in the moment.