Meltdowns and the Big Picture

By Dan Coulter


What do you do when your child does something inappropriate and has a meltdown while playing with other children? After the bottom falls out of your stomach, that is. It’s easy to be caught up in the moment and scold your child for anti-social behavior or insist that he calm down.

But for many children, particularly if they have a condition such as Asperger Syndrome or autism, these may be the worst things we can do.

Scolding or making demands of a child who is upset and screaming or crying often just adds fuel to an emotional fire. This can create an “overload loop” that keeps replaying in his or her mind.

Let’s say you and two other parents are supervising your kids at a park where you arranged a play date — and your child falls apart.

You may be able to salvage the situation by breaking your child’s train of thought. First, remove him from the immediate area and talk with him in a soothing voice until he calms down. Depending on his age, you may be able to distract him with a favorite toy or by encouraging him to talk about a special interest. Once he’s in a more reasonable frame of mind, you can describe what he needs to do rejoin his playmates. Be clear about the advantages of doing what you ask. You may want to offer a reward if he’s able to play according to the rules you give him.

But what if this approach doesn’t work? We all want to fix problems quickly, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes your best option may be to remove your child from the scene in a strategic retreat. It’s important to see this as part of a strategy, not as a failure. You have to look at the big picture. Your short-term goal of a good play session may be foiled, but you can use what you learned to help accomplish your long-term goal of teaching your child to socialize with other children. Focusing on failure is a dead end. Concentrating on future success will help your child more.

Disclosure can be your ally. It’s usually best to tell the other parents involved why your child acts the way he does and give them an opportunity to help. Not disclosing may actually drive them away, if they just see a case of kids not getting along. Playmates may not need to know about a specific diagnosis, but if their parents explain what behaviors they’re likely to see, and suggest what to do when they occur, they’re more likely to be accommodating. And disclosing a specific condition to other children when they’re old enough to understand is usually a good idea.

Consider ways to structure play sessions to minimize possible problems. You may want to schedule shorter sessions, if that’s all that your child can handle. If your child can’t stand to lose, set up activities rather than competitive games. If your child has trouble taking turns, pick something the kids can all do at the same time.

If your child is more interested in objects than people, and can’t wait to play with another child’s toys, plan carefully with the other parents involved. You may want to prepare your child, Mary, by explaining that playmate Sally is going to bring over her new doll. Mary can have a turn with the doll, while Sally has a turn with one of Mary’s dolls. Make it clear to Mary that she’ll need to give Sally’s doll back after her turn. Sally’s parent can share the same information with Sally. If both girls know what to expect, you’re programming the session for success.

You may even want to write a short “social story” about the play session that describes the event the way you want it to go. Each of the girls is a character in the story. You can even put yourself and the other parent it in, praising the girls for playing so well together.

Finally, apply praise with a bucket, not a brush. When we were priming our son Drew to act in a certain ways in various situations in his younger years, we’d praise him lavishly when he did what he was supposed to do. If we accidentally neglected this reward on occasion, he wasn’t shy about prompting us with some version of, “I did it right, didn’t I?” We were quick to agree.

As your child progresses, you can introduce more complex situations to build on his success. Keep in mind that you’re helping him learn the lessons he needs to get along in the world at a pace he can handle.

It may take a lot of hours and effort on your part to help your child develop skills that come to other kids intuitively. But consider that your determination, patience and commitment are teaching your child a lesson that can help him build not just social skills, but also a critical armor of self esteem.

Recently, I spoke with a mother who has a daughter with Asperger Syndrome. She said her daughter had always believed in herself, but her experiences in middle school were wearing at that confidence.

The time and effort we invest in our kids, especially if invested continually with enthusiasm and patience, shows them we believe in them. That helps them believe in themselves, because they’re getting the message through actions as well as words.

And every one of those actions is a step toward making that big picture we hold in our heads — the one of a positive, successful life for our children — a reality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVDs “Understanding Brothers and Sisters with Asperger Syndrome” and “Understanding Brothers and Sisters on the Autism Spectrum.” You can find more articles on his website Coulter Video.

Copyright 2007 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By Permission

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