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.
• 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.
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.