Your child is melting down, having a tantrum, or has lost control of their emotions. What do you do? Many autism therapies will tell you that this is a moment to exert your authority. They say you should not give in to your child, that you shouldn't reward the tantrum, that you shouldn't give attention to your child for the tantrum. The problem is that these therapies view a tantrum as a child trying to manipulate an adult into getting what they want.
How would that make us feel? All of us need help in relationships. We have times when we get angry and lose it. We have times when we are frustrated to the point of boiling. We get so sad the tears threaten. We aren't trying to manipulate our partner. Our feelings are real and valid. We aren't trying to win a battle. Our perspective on what's happening, what's going wrong, what's missing is valid. So when we view a child's tantrum or meltdown as manipulation, it sets us up for conflict.
A tantrum, meltdown, or loss of control means something is not working - the relationship, the connection, the communication - something. Our emotions have filled up and spilled over the edges, exceeding our ability to communicate or to come up with solutions.
The tantrum itself is not the problem. Your job is not to stop or prevent tantrums, any more than it's your partner's job to stop or prevent your upsets. That would feel pretty manipulative itself. Our child is telling us to pay attention to the relationship. They're breaking down because they need to re-connect with you. They need your help.
So here are steps to take during your child's tantrum:
1. Keep Everyone Safe
Allowing your child to communicate their frustrations doesn't mean free reign to hurt themselves or others. Make sure you are in a safe space that isn't a safety risk like a street, parking lot, or edge of a cliff. (Hey, it's happened.)
When your child is getting close to hurting others or themselves, use what I call the "angel of futility/angel of compassion" method (I learned this from Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté's book Hold On To Your Kids.) You come in as the angel of compassion, saying "You're upset, I can see how angry you are." Then we present the angel of futility, "But I'm sorry. It's my job to keep everyone safe. That's what parents do. I'm the parent. I have to keep you safe. I know that's frustrating." Balance compassion with safety very calmly.
2. Keep Calm
If you feel upset by your child's tantrum, give yourself a minute. It's okay to feel those feelings. We all feel hurt and startled by anger directed at us. Acknowledge your feeling - Hello, my old friend, anger, or sadness, confusion, or hurt. Then do some breathing. Breathing in, I am water. Breathing out, I feel calm. Or mountain/solid, rock/strong, tree/steady, whatever works best for you.
Rather than seeing an angry, manipulative tantrum in front of you, see that scared child inside who needs your help and is overwhelmed. See the frightened child who is asking you, Am I Safe?, Do You Like Me?, Can We Re-Connect? Those are the questions that are behind a tantrum.
3. Let Them Vent
Our children need to get those feelings out. If we try to get them to stop expressing those emotions, they bottle them up. But eventually, they'll leak out somewhere - in misbehavior, in shutting down, or worse. We can help them vent safely. Allow them to hit pillows, stuffed animals, a punching bag. Tell them it's okay to yell at us or a stuffed animal instead of at siblings or friends. Give them an outlet.
4. Provide Compassion
Let them know their emotions are valid and that they are okay. If all you do is say I hear you, I get it, I understand - even if you don't understand exactly why they're upset - they will feel heard. That's as important to our children as it is to us. We don't want to invalidate their feelings, which we do inadvertently when we try to help. Like telling them it's no big deal or that they shouldn't be upset. Just like we want our partner to hear us out and to understand us, our children need us to hear them, really hear them.
After your child has expressed their frustration, get into re-connection mode. That's what this upset is about - always. Your child feels frustrated by something: a missed communication, a misunderstanding, a lack of connection. Now's the time to repair and reconnect. You'll have to experiment with what works for them. Get them to a comfy spot that they like: the bed, a crash pillow, a blanket fort. Then play variations of peek-a-boo, hide-and-seek, I'm gonna get you. Help, I'm falling off the bed is a favorite in my house, when we pretend we're falling off and the other person needs to pull us back up from the edge. Do you see the metaphor in all these games? I am lost and you find me? I feel disconnection and you reconnect with me? That's the importance of what seems like silly, babyish games, but are very important for our kids. It can be very sophisticated games of reconnection involving characters and themes and plots. Or they can be simple - I'm over here apart from you, now I'm close and reconnected. I'm over here, now I'm close. It's as simple as that.
Don't be persuaded by strategies that turn tantrums into manipulation, that turn relationships into power struggles. Think about how you'd feel if someone tried that method on you. And think about how our children struggle to maintain their sense of safety and connection in a world that overwhelms them. Think about how much energy they expend just getting through their day. And think about that scared little kid inside (no matter how big they are) who is asking, Am I Safe? Do You Like Me?