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This Advice On Handling Meltdowns With Special Needs Kids Is Relevant To All Parents

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What are some tips for parents new to the special needs family on how to deal with public meltdowns?
Public meltdowns happen. My 4-year-old son has been diagnosed with Autism for over a year now, but we had a pretty good idea a year before that he was somewhere on the spectrum. Paired with a problem handling controls and a secondary speech delay, we dealt with a lot of meltdowns, both at home and when out and about. Here is what I’d like to tell myself, 2 years ago, and other parents who are new to this:

Know That You Are Not Alone
When you’re dealing with a meltdown in public, especially if it’s a particularly loud or violent one (my son was a head thumper when melting down, or flailed if unable to hit his head, like if he was in a cart seat), you feel like you’re all alone in the center of a ring of people, all of whom are staring at you and judging. But you are NOT alone. Somewhere in that crowd is someone who has experienced this, maybe firsthand, maybe while with a friend or family member. And even if there isn’t anyone out there who has, you’re not alone. The other parents out there are with you. Yes, some are judging. Some are taking a moment to be thankful it’s not them. Some think it’s your fault. But at the very, very heart of it, all of them are feeling for you, it’s just causing different reactions in them. You are not alone.

Ben Schumin/Flickr; CC BY SA 2.0

Move Out Of The General Traffic (NOT Because Of Everyone Else)
This helps give you some space to focus on your child and also helps your child not feel overwhelmed. My son cannot handle when too many people are staring at him — even in the best of times, when he’s getting all the POSITIVE attention, it’s sometimes too much and he covers his eyes and drops to the ground. In a bad situation, all those eyes make him more upset.

Don’t Worry About Everyone Else
I used to feel apologetic, focus some attention on explaining, apologizing, etc. Don’t. They are adults. It’s not your problem to make them okay about this, to apologize, to make them understand. That’s not for you to do right now.

Focus On Your Child
Meltdowns are terrible. They really, really are. They leave you feeling a whole mess of things, not one of them good. Focus on your child. Even in the middle of a terrible meltdown where he was literally crying because he wanted something I couldn’t or wouldn’t give him right then, I tried to remind myself that although the behavior isn’t what we want, his upset is real. He was genuinely upset and unhappy. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have what he wanted. He was frustrated. And then he got overwhelmed with emotions and was melting down, literally losing control and feeling too much. Focus on your child.

Try To Stay Calm
It’s tough, I know. You’re going to be feeling this intense wave of emotions and almost about to meltdown yourself. Anger. Frustration. Sorrow. Helplessness. Embarrassment. Sadness. Hopelessness. Everything. Try to stem it. You’re doing the very best you know how. You love your child. You’re doing what many people cannot — you’re out and about with your child, you’re handling this. You’ve got this. Stay calm. Calm helps your child refocus. Calm helps them center. If you get angry or hysterical, you push your child further in. If you try to overbalance by being abnormally cheerful or suddenly exuberant, you confuse and overwhelm. Calm, loving is the best you can do.

Do What You Know
You know your child. What can you do to help pull him out of this? Is it asking questions? Distracting? Singing a favorite song? For my son, he likes to be held, firmly, so that’s what we do (when we can). Hug him to me, head against my chest, so he can hear my heart, cover his other ear with a hand, and then rub his back and head. Talking calmly. Asking questions. Mentioning his favorite things until something breaks through and he can focus. Minecraft. Ps4. His Kindle. Reading ISpy books. Playing in the dirt. Eventually, I say enough of the right words and it triggers a different reaction, and he can focus on wanting to do or play that.

If You Can, Finish What You Came To Do
We’ve all left behind a full cart at Target or the grocery store when things just seem untenable. We’ve all sat in the car and cried after. Gone home and never wanted to leave again. If you can, finish the task. Pay for your cart. Load up. Not only does this mean you don’t have to go out again later to do what you originally needed to do, but it helps your child know that we need to do things sometimes.

We learned the hard way that leaving the haircutting salon for kids when my son melted down about a haircut taught him that melting down every time we even neared the place kept us away. This is great for things like security or safety, but not so great if you cannot do things you need to get done, like doctor visits, haircuts, etc. He does not like the haircut process, still, but has learned that it is going to happen, and he no longer goes full-scale meltdown when we approach.

Don’t Kill Yourself If You Have To Resort To A Bribe
It’s not GREAT behavior — you and I both know why: handing a lollipop to a child in a meltdown works in the short term, but long term … I know this because we did this, at first, when my son was younger and we didn’t yet realize. Now we know. We use reinforcers for positive behaviors, but try not to use the reward-bribe to nudge him out of a meltdown. It is fine (IMO) as a preventative measure — BEFORE any hint of a meltdown begins, so what you’re reinforcing is a good behavior — the calm, etc. But if you just need to, don’t sweat it. You do what you have to do.

Prep For Next Time
Once you start to recognize triggers (for my son, shopping at Target is a big trigger right now — he wants Legos every visit, and when that doesn’t occur, has a giant meltdown every single time), you can either plan around them so you never have to deal with them (now that he’s in a special autism class preschool, I try to only ever go to Target when he’s in class) or start distracting right away. Redirect. Distract. Use reinforcers.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up
No matter what went wrong, don’t sit there feeling guilty or angry at yourself. Yes — recognize and acknowledge what could have been better/gone differently, try to remember that for next time, but then, let it go. You did the best you could.

Acknowledge Other Parents You See Dealing With This
Follow their lead (generally interfering doesn’t help me, so people who try to do that with my son actually make things a little more complicated or scary for my son). If they seem to not want interaction, then don’t. But try to make some eye contact. Smile if you can do it in a way that will read as support. Say something.

One time in the middle of a terrible screaming fit at Costco (damn that Christmas toy aisle in September!!!), I was hugging my sobbing, flailing son to me (with my youngest daughter strapped to my back in her carrier) when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Just in passing, a woman leaned in and told me, “You’re doing so well. Keep loving, Mama.” and then kept going. I almost cried just then.

I don’t know if she recognized him as autistic or just knew that kids have rough times. I don’t know if she had a child or grandchild with the same issues. I do know her small gesture was like a hug to my really broken heart. I don’t have the courage, yet, to do the same, but I always try to make eye contact and will some good energy, love, and support towards others in the same situation.We’re not alone.

Good luck. You will figure this out. You are strong, loving, and courageous in ways that many people are not. You’re really, really, really not alone, either.

Alecia is an accomplished writer who has been published by Forbes, the Huffington Post, Thought Catalog, and more. See more of her Quora posts here: