When we dissect temper tantrums we often find they result from frustrations that can lead to anger or total loss of control. Anger and frustration are natural emotions, they are neither good nor bad, they simply exist, as do happiness and love. When you enter the world of a child with Autism, you may find that despite some language ability, he or she may have a difficult time making you understand what she or he needs or wants. The other possibility of course is experiencing sensory overload, which needs to be taken into consideration.
Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) desire to become effective communicators and more self-sufficient but they often lack the skills necessary to do so. Even neuro-typical children feel confused, helpless and lost in our adult world at times. As parents we need to teach our children, instructing them to develop appropriate ways to cope and training them to become self-sufficient. Anger management has to be taught, no one is born with it.
There are many tactics experts suggest parents use when they are faced with difficult behaviors:
• Telling children to stop - while communicating what you want them to do instead.
• Teaching the steps for anger management, including identification of feelings.
• Distraction (age appropriate) - humor, passions, hugs, point to schedule, etc
• Ignoring - no encouragement, leaving the room, etc
• De-escalation - using counting, deep breathing, etc
• Using time-out - sending children to their room.
For the annoying and irritating behaviors that children often exhibit I always encourage parents to use the last one, time-out, as a last resort and learn to use it appropriately. Unfortunately, time-out is often overused and therefore ineffective so it is important to decide what behaviors you want to use it for. Sending kids to time-out for all misbehaviors will dilute its effectiveness and may even create resentment in a child - being ostracized to your room while in turmoil does very little to teach any child how to behave better.
I encourage parents to use time-out ONLY for emotional meltdowns and temper tantrums, and I suggest redefining the entire concept. Throw away the word time-out, call it something else and create a different approach. Here are some suggestions for creating and implementing a new and improved, yet successful alternative to using time-out.
If interested in experimenting with a new form of time-out, first take a step back and reflect: What am I using time-out for? What is our goal? Are we using it to correct behavior or to punish or is there something else at play here? Based on your values, it is important to take some time to get clear on the purpose and the outcome you desire. The correct purpose of time-out should be for a child to learn how to calm down and eventually self-soothe.
Young children who misbehave, get angry and upset enough to have a temper tantrum need to learn self-calming skills BUT not in the heat of the moment. No brain - adult or child, typical or neuro-typical - can take in information and act upon it when in the heat of emotional despair or uncontrollable rage. Trying to reason with or scold a child who is in the midst of a temper tantrum is futile. Instead,
- Consider creating a 'feel better' place, a safe place that can replace typical time-out. This could be a beanbag in the kitchen, an arm chair in the living room, a corner of the family room OR the child's bedroom as long as it is not seen as punitive. Identify such a place for everyone in the family and make sure it is customized to each person's needs, temperaments and personality. When your child shows signs of breaking down, gently guide her to her designated place and provide her with a means to calm down. This could be cuddling with a blanket or stuffed animal, rocking, listening to soft music or whatever else was determined in advance.
- When you feel your temper about to burst, try role modeling the act of taking a break to feel better. If feeling out of sorts or displaying behaviors that indicate stress, frustration and anger are normalized like this and a solution is presented, it will not only minimize and prevent emotional outbursts over time but it will also provide your child with valuable lessons for coping with life.
- Introducing and role-modeling this new approach will take time and young children will need a lot of direct intervention in the beginning. Presenting it well is crucial to making it work. Explain the new routine using clear and specific language that your child understands best (visuals or social stories when necessary) and giving concrete demonstrations will only help to increase its chance of success. Allowing older children to have input into how it might work best for them will also help as well as giving the new process a positive and unique name.
- It is essential to introduce this new tactic at a time when your child is in good spirits. If your child is slow to process information you may even want to discuss it for a while before you actually implement it. Once you do, they will need to be guided firmly yet gently.
- Be consistent and stick to this method for at least four to six months. They say it takes a minimum of twenty-one repetitions or more for new behaviors to be accepted and become habit. If minor tweaks become obvious make adjustments right away making sure you communicate the change clearly.
Yes, all of this will take time but all good outcomes are worth working for and time is what it takes to change behaviors and make them stick. Taking time is what parenting is all about, if we aren't willing to invest our time and effort, than our parenting will continue to be difficult.