Managing Challenging Behaviour and Meltdowns

Amber at her finest ~ covered in foam at a ‘Messy Play’ session.

Challenging behaviour and meltdowns are something that I deal with every day. After working in Childcare for 12 years, (6 years with children with additional needs,) nothing could prepare me for dealing with my own child’s challenging behaviour in the home environment. I have soon learnt that the relationship I had with my pupils is completely different to the emotional connection that I have with my own daughter, Amber (4.) I have learnt that certain strategies that may have worked with the children I looked after do not work with Amber.
I quickly had to learn the important huge difference between a ‘temper tantrum’ and a ‘meltdown.’ As Amber has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) with traits of ASD and ADHD, she can experience ‘Sensory Overloads’ and this often results in a ‘meltdown.’ This is when I describe that she is no longer in control of her emotions, I’m often describing that Amber is neither ‘naughty’ or ‘spoilt,’ these are meltdowns are occurring because there’s a sudden loud noise, a change of routine or she has become overwhelmed in a supermarket from the noise, the lights, the sheer volume of people. Amber has difficulty recognising that she’s feeling overwhelmed and therefore will display her feelings via kicking, hitting, pushing, throwing items, pushing her younger sister over, pulling stairgates off walls, thrashing herself about, banging walls or doors, spitting, screaming or shouting.

At 18-months-old I first noticed that Amber was a ‘sensory seeker,’ she would actively seek out anything that would provide a sensory input, for example, she enjoyed running the taps in any bathrooms and feeling the water run through her hands. I found that her temper tantrums were frequently and I was constantly told that this was “normal for her age,” and that she would “grow out of it.” By the age of 3 she became a big sister and I had prepared myself for her behaviour to become more challenging, the advice I was given was that this should only be a ‘stage’ and that after she was used to having a new baby in the family, then her behaviour would improve, however it didn’t, and as time went on she became increasingly worse, and would display on the whole as compliant in her Early Years setting but extremely challenging at home, she would target her baby sister by pulling her legs and trying to tip over her Moses basket, the jealousy she felt toward her baby sister was quite extreme. By the age of 4 I started to recognise certain things that Amber didn’t like, that she would avoid, for example, physical contact – she would only give out cuddles on her terms and when she did they were very tight cuddles! She also became anxious around unexpected loud noises like motorbikes when outside and she could hear aeroplanes and grass cutters long before I could! It was around her 4th birthday that I would say that Amber’s ‘extreme meltdowns’ started. These were sometimes around 10 times a day and some would last over an hour, and I found it incredibly difficult to deal with as it was such unknown territory for me. The main triggers for a meltdown are:

• Unexpected loud noises,

• Changes to routine – finds school holidays very difficult.

• Wanting something that she cannot have – usually centred around food, as Amber cannot tell when she feels full.

• Public places – usually indoors – supermarkets, libraries, sports halls, swimming pools, cinema, theatre.
I can usually gauge when Amber is on the verge of a meltdown, she becomes extremely restless, will talk quickly and will jump, clap her hands in front of her face or try and climb onto anything she can to jump off.

I use a range of strategies to help avoid a possible overload:

• Visuals – to display routines of what is happening during each day, traffic light system – to help Amber identify if she needs to free play (green,) find a calm activity such as playdough (orange,) or go to her ‘calm zone, (red.) I also use individual cue cards and fans, e.g to show ‘kind hands.’

• Always carry Ear defenders – in case of loud noise, e.g. at the train station.

• Listening to fears, worries, frustrations and what makes her angry – talking through exactly what the problem is if she is willing to share. This is a recent strategy that has worked once I noticed more challenging behaviour days before a Halloween party, we talked and Amber said “Mummy I’m scared of Halloween.” I could then address this to avoid an overload.

• Keeping calm myself – this is easier said than done! It is one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever had to go through and I’ve always been told that I’m a calm person but it’s very difficult to handle when you are being challenged daily, and you’re the main person that your child outlets with, there was a time when I felt completely hopeless and my self-confidence took such a knock. But staying calm allows situations to be diffused, if my voice is raised then Amber will also raise hers, but If I remain calm, then she calms quicker.

• Avoiding the word “No” – we use strategies to avoid demands on Amber, if she hears the word no, she can become even more angry. We phrase instructions carefully, for example, when getting dressed for school: “You put your socks on, or I can help.” This can be quite challenging for us to think of at times!

• Distraction – Amber thrives on sensory and messy play experiences as part of her ‘Sensory Diet,’ If I plan experiences when she’s at home, such as playdough, sand and water play, foam play, etc she is satisfied in terms of her ‘sensory seeking,’ and I find that her level of concentration is much higher whilst engaging in this type of play.

I have learnt over time that there are specific strategies that can help during and after a meltdown:

• Breathing exercises, e.g. lying down and counting to 10 with a teddy on her tummy. Smelling the flower (breathing in,) and blowing out the candle (breathing out.)

• Calm area – a specific area of the house, including blankets, cushions, bubble tube, sensory toys.

Amber’s ‘Calm Area’ is under the stairs, as she prefers smaller spaces.

• Wrapping up in a blanket – Amber responds to a ‘weighted blanket,’ and likes to feel safe and contained.

• If in full meltdown mode, (as I haven’t had up-to-date restraining training,) I have been advised to ensure that Amber is safe, e.g. that she cannot bang her head and that I leave the room with her younger sister for safety, but keeping Amber in sight.

• Offering a reassuring cuddle once a meltdown is over, to talk about what happened later, once she is much calmer and try to establish what the problem was.

• Rocking and cuddling tightly can help to calm her.
I felt completely lost after having my second child when Amber’s challenging behaviour peaked, I would have appreciated someone to advise me that everything would be alright. Now I try and help other parents as much as I can, this is one of the reasons why I started my Blog in March 2016, I’ve always said that if I could just help 1 other person it would be worth it.

My top tips for parents who experience challenging behaviours from their child are:

1. Connect with other parents – via social media support groups and local support groups. I attend a parent’s support group, for those that have children with additional needs, which is run from my local children’s centre I have also joined a local support network where there are meet-ups for parents to connect and for the children to interact. This is such a huge support for both myself and my partner, to talk to other parents who know where we’re coming from and have been through similar experiences, this allows us to share tips and ideas and provides a reassuring emotional support.

2. Research – time is precious and we lead such busy lives, but I’ve found it so useful to research the reasons behind challenging behaviours in children, via internet searches and reading various books. There is a fair amount of reading material out there and I’ve found a lot of helpful books that offer information on dealing with anger in children. I have soon learnt that ‘there is a reason for every behaviour,’ and this has put it all in perspective for me, to stop and ask myself: “Why is this particular behaviour happening?”

3. Never be afraid to ask for help and support – in the beginning I saw asking for help as a weakness, I was embarrassed after working in childcare and that I was struggling to cope with my own child’s behaviour at home. But once I contacted my local children’s centre, and was offered Family Support this turned our whole family life around. Our family support worker made weekly visits to offer advice and strategies to support us to deal with the challenging behaviours that Amber displays. Without this vital support our whole family life would have suffered.

4. Always carry a ‘Fiddle’ bag or box wherever you go! This has prevented many meltdowns, especially whilst out and about, providing a distraction and something to focus on if I recognise the signs of Amber becoming restless, or on the verge of a sensory overload.

Squeezy/stretchy toys and fiddly toys – such as a ‘Tangle.’

5. Believe in yourself! – As someone who’s parenting strategies have been constantly scrutinised, this has really knocked my self-confidence, as Amber is a very good masker of her difficulties and she tends to offload mainly with me, I’ve now learnt that this is because she feels most safe with me and that it is nothing that I’m doing wrong. Believe that you are doing a good job. Take a deep breath and try to offer yourself little ‘brain breaks,’ I go upstairs for 5 to 10 minutes and sit quietly in a dark room once Amber’s daddy returns home from work. It is very difficult to find time for me, bit this is so important.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Spectrum Sunday

Our ‘Support Crew’ 

Family Fund Blog post for October 2016.

When I heard of the theme of ‘Our Support Crew’ for October’s Blog theme, I was excited to celebrate the people that have been there for us as a family, especially over the past 2 years. I am often telling the people who support us how grateful I am, but it’s also great to celebrate these wonderful people in a Blog post.

My family:

My parents live a 5-minute drive away from our house, as both myself and my partner, Paul are unable to drive (for various reasons,) I am so very grateful that my dad is always on hand to help out with travelling to one of the many appointments that I have to take Amber to. This may be for a hearing test at our local hospital, which is 8 miles from our house, Occupational Therapy appointments, and even though Amber’s Paediatrician appointments are at our local medical practice, its difficult for me to keep Amber calm with her younger sister of 18 months present also. My dad will drive us to these appointments and then supervise my youngest, Maisie whilst I go in with Amber. My parents are extremely understanding of Amber’s difficulties, whenever I receive information or reports I place them in a folder and often photocopy for my parents to refer to. They are very good at carrying on certain routines, if Amber goes over for the day, or stays for a few nights, for example by using her visual timetables or sensory toys if they can see she’s getting a bit overloaded. Apart from Amber’s daddy, my mum is the only person that has witnessed Amber’s extreme sensory overloads, this is because Amber is very good at holding her overloads in. I have found that Amber will only display extreme meltdowns with those whom she is most comfortable in the company of – one being my mum. My mum has 25 years Early Years’ experience, she is the calmest person I have ever met and is so brilliant with Amber, she has taken on some ‘Sensory Diet’ activities when Amber goes over, such as making sensory play dough. 

Amber with her Nanna

My sister is also Godmother to both Amber and Maisie, she too has helped out with appointments and will come over to play with the girls to give me a little ‘brain break!’ Their Aunt and Uncle are extremely good at playing role-play ‘shops,’ which is currently a big hit with Amber! My sister recently stepped in and took over when I couldn’t move due to Sciatica in my back, changing and dressing and giving the girls their meals. 

Maisie with her Aunty Bex
Amber with her Aunty Bex

My cousin, who works in childcare, has a great rapport with Amber, only last month she drove us to a local ‘messy play’ session which Amber thrived on. 

Amber with my cousin

Paul’s family:
As I wrote in a previous Family Fund Blog post, Paul’s dad’s family are a fantastic support when we take the girls to visit them in Somerset. Even though there is distance, and we would love to live closer, the support and advice is there via weekly ‘Face Time’ via mobile phone with Paul’s sister and niece, and a weekly phone call to Paul’s dad keeps him up-to-date with all our going’s on! We find that Social Media sites allow us to keep up-to-date even though we live 1 ½ hours apart. 

Amber with her Aunty Vicki
Amber with her cousin
Amber and her cousin have a strong bond – it’s lovely seeing them holding hands whilst going down the slide!
When Amber’s Aunty and Cousin visit she loves trips to the park

Friends and neighbours:
We have a fantastic network of friends and neighbours, this network grew once we moved to our current home in August 2015, and I got speaking to some of the other parents at Amber’s Pre School. Many of these friends are regularly kept up-to-date with Amber’s progress, before meeting these lovely people, I was extremely anxious about taking Amber on a ‘Play-date’ in case she was to hurt another child. My friends have been so encouraging and have taken note that Amber’s play-date time limit is around 2 hours, and will be aware of this if Amber starts experiencing sensory overloads. One of these wonderful friends lives only 2 doors away and is Maisie’s Godmother, and such a great support to our family. Friends have taken us on trips to local parks, animal parks, our local countryside centre and we’ve had a lovely walk through the woods together, which Amber – being an ‘outdoors’ girl, absolutely loved! Our friends are very understanding of Amber’s difficulties and many have reported how she makes them laugh with her infectious personality! When my parents were away on holiday, one friend even took us for one of Amber’s hospital appointments, even though they have children of their own, they always find the time to help us, and for this I am eternally grateful. 

Amber during a ‘Play-date’ with one of her friends

Health professionals:
When I first recognised that Amber had some difficulties, we had quite a mixed response in terms of support when she was around 2 years old. Often our parenting was scrutinised in the beginning as things hadn’t been looked into long enough and a great deal of Amber’s overloads were put down to the ‘Terrible Two’s’ which I did have my doubts about. Because Amber’s behaviours at home were difficult past the age of 2, then 3, then 4 we knew that something needed to be looked into. We were extremely lucky to move back to the area covered by Amber’s Health Visitor from when she was first born, who knew our family well. When I explained the situation to this Health Visitor, she was the first professional who actually said to me: “I believe you.” She witnessed Amber at home, climbing onto furniture, not settling, continually being on the move and sensory seeking. She then arranged for a referral to an Occupational Therapist. 

Education professionals:

Amber had attended a few different childcare settings before our house move in August 2015, at first I was reluctant to move her to yet another setting, but the house move was a necessity as it was vital that we moved from our first floor flat to a house with a garden to benefit Amber’s love of the outdoors and to allow her to burn more energy. I was so glad that we made the move to her Pre-School as a member of staff first introduced us to the SMILE (Sensation Movement Interaction in Life Experiences) Centre in Malvern, Worcestershire which provides Amber with so much support in school holidays. The Pre School leader was the first practitioner to mention Sensory Processing to me, as I’d only come across 1 child in my 12 years in Education. This practitioner organised monthly TAC (Team Around the Child) meetings to ensure that Amber received the best level of support from Pre School and support us as a whole family also. The Pre-School leader ensured that Amber’s transition over to school was smooth via an in-depth hand-over and we are very grateful to the school’s Inclusion Manager who, in only 3 weeks of Amber attending, has already offered a tremendous amount of support and advice. 

Without our ‘support team’ we would be utterly lost, sometimes all that is needed is a listening ear, especially if it has been a tough day, it’s very easy to get caught up in our own family ‘bubble’ at home, and letting people in to help and support only makes us stronger.

Amber loves helping to take her Aunt and Uncle’s Dog, (Lenny) for a walk

Thanks for reading 🙂 

Nicki ~ Sensory Sensitive Mummy 

Paul, Nicki and Amber at 10 months old

Back to School 

A little background information.

This is Amber she is 4 years old and has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) with traits of ADHD and Autism.

Amber has a younger sister Maisie who is 18 months old and lives with Mummy – Nicki and Daddy – Paul in a village in Worcestershire.
Amber is a lively little girl who’s always on the go, she finds it difficult to control her emotions and frustration. She requires a calm place if it all gets too much at home. Amber is a ‘Sensory Seeker’ and therefore will thrive on all sensory experiences, the messier the better! Family Fund provided Amber with a grant for Sensory toys and equipment from Learning SPACE and sessions at a local multi-sensory centre called SMILE (Sensation Movement Interaction in Life Experiences) at ARCOS (Association for Rehabilitation of Communication and Oral skills,) in Malvern, Worcestershire. We have noticed a marked improvement in Amber’s ability to cope with sensory overload, frustration and anger and will use the toys and equipment in her calm place.

Preparation for starting school this September. 

Amber has just finished a year at our local Pre School which she throughly enjoyed, and this enabled her to start to build friendships ready for school. I’m not sure who’s more nervous about Amber starting school – Amber herself or me! Coming from an education background, for the last 12 years I have been so used to receiving a new class every September, it’s a whole new experience for me to be on the other side! Since May 2016 there has been input about starting ‘big school,’ which has been important for Amber to prepare her for the change that is about to happen. However,  we have noticed a spike in Amber’s behaviour at home and in particular, her bedtimes have been disrupted. 

Amber thrives on structure and routine, she gets up every morning and asks “what are we doing today?” We use a visual timetable to inform her of what is happening each day. Amber likes being around other children and many adults in an education setting, in order to prepare her of the change in setting, adults and surroundings, her Pre School made a special key ring with pictures of the staff, various rooms and areas of the school. Therefore we have been looking at these pictures frequently over the holidays and have been talking about it together. 

We were impressed with the amount of transition visits Amber’s new school had arranged for their new intake. Some of these sessions I attended as well and I could already see that the classroom is going to suit Amber due to the sensory play opportunities on offer and a large outdoor space. I was so impressed when the school’s Inclusion Officer said that Amber will have a specified quiet area of the classroom with a basket of sensory items if she gets a bit overwhelmed. The key here was to arrange a meeting before Amber starts the school and this will then be followed up with a multi – agency meeting at the school during her second week. The class teachers have arranged a home visit for the first week of term to allow them to see Amber in her home surroundings, which I think is so important as Amber does tend to behave differently at home than she does at any educational setting.

Uniform

Such a cheeky grin!

Amber is not a fan of ‘itchy’ materials as she calls them, nor socks as she takes them off everytime at home. Amber hasn’t worn a skirt since around the age of 2 and she isn’t keen at all on tights, again calling them “itchy.” We are lucky that trousers are permitted for girls to wear, so I ensured that I bought ones that are of soft and light texture. She may request to wear a skirt if she sees that other class – friends are, so I’ve ensured that I have both options. Amber is also not keen on labels in her clothes – I’m the same and can remember an itchy label in my neckline once affected my whole day at school. I will therefore cut the labels out to avoid any discomfort.

Amber has a staggered entry into school for the first 2 weeks which will allow her to stay for the morning then experience a week with lunchtimes before starting full time in the 3rd week. I can imagine that Amber will be very tired in her first few weeks whilst adjusting to the change, so will be be prepared at home when she returns and I would think that she’s going to require quite a lot of time in her ‘calm area’ where she has Sensory toys, bubbles tubes, etc.

We are excited about this new experience but you always have in the back of your mind – will everything be ok? But we’re luckily to have such a supportive team already at the school to aid the process.

We can’t wait to take that all important ‘First Day of School’ photo – my mum still has mine! Daddy has even taken the day off to share the experience! 

Thanks for reading 🙂 

I can’t believe where those 4 and a half years have gone!