You know how it happens. You’re in a store and your child starts making loud noises, jumping out of the cart, running around, falling on the floor. You beg, you bargain, you threaten but the noises get louder. Or maybe it’s a restaurant and your son is holding his ears, sprinkling grated cheese all over his seat, kicking the table of the couple sitting behind you, and simply not listening to you. You offer rewards, you raise your voice, you may even pack up and leave in a hurry with your food untouched. I have done these things more times than I can count.
Once I learned more about sensory integration and the way my child is under assault by his senses daily, the more I understood why all of the exhausting and frustrating techniques above had no impact or even made things worse.
Here are 5 techniques I created over time and now keep in my toolbox whenever we go out:
Tell a story. What is your child’s current obsession? Is it a cartoon character? A video game? This is a great opportunity to introduce a social story starring the number one persona that will get your child’s attention. For my son, I will use Mario, Luigi and Yoshi to illustrate the issue, list options of preferred and exaggerated non-preferred responses from them, and then ask his opinion on which he thinks would be a better choice. To really drive the message home, I ask him to show me how he would teach that character to make the right choice.
Assign a job. Amidst the chaos, I like to suddenly feign a problem that I absolutely can’t solve myself and then ask for his help. I tend to make it ridiculous enough to get his attention but not so much where he doesn’t believe I can accomplish the task myself. An example would be to cry out, “Oh my goodness – I can’t figure out which of these items are cold so the cashier can ring them up together! Can you help? I don’t know WHAT to do!” He usually immediately gets out of his head and body and gets excited about helping Mom
If you build it… Often troubled times occur while waiting for our order at a diner or restaurant (if the odds are in our favor and we attempt such a thing!). Many times, without speaking, I will start building a pyramid or structure out of coffee creamers, pats of butter, single-serve jams, or even sugar packets. His curiosity is piqued when he sees my attempted creation and will typically start to mimic me.
Reboot. Ideally, it would be wonderful if you could explain to your child the benefit of closing her eyes, taking deep breaths, and “restarting” her system. When in meltdown, it is most likely too late; once sensory overwhelm has occurred, reasoning flies out the window. The brain can be jolted out of its current state with an unusual statement or unexpected silly gesture. Once that occurs, it searches for an answer or new idea to latch onto, so you have about 3-10 seconds to redirect the current activity or reaction. Sometimes all it takes is a really silly face or Jim Carrey-like clumsy fall to instantly disarm my son.
Direct within. Using a series of questions that aim to keep your child in the present moment can be a lifesaver. “What is that on the wall? “What does that place mat feel like on your fingers? Do you hear that funny bird outside the window?” This also can prove challenging if your child has spatial issues and doesn’t feel where her body ends and space begins. Technology can help! A cheap set of headphones and an iPhone app with nature sounds (or even a game) can help your child tune out the rest of the world that is currently assaulting her nervous system.
These things have worked for me many, many times. I shudder when I recall my responses and attempted solutions before I really understood how differently my son perceives the world around him. Putting myself in his shoes first is the ONLY way any of these suggestions will truly help. He is old enough now where I can actually ask him if his body is hurting or if something else is causing his outburst. He is much more in touch with his body these days and can actually verbalize his experience, as well as ask for what he needs with prompting. It wasn’t always like that, though.
Keep trying, don’t worry about what anyone else around you is saying, and stay flexible – you will see the payoff!
How do you typically put a halt on meltdowns? Do you have tips to share with other readers? Post them here in the comments below or on the SOA Facebook page – I’d love to hear your ideas!