5 Quick Ways to Stop a Meltdown

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!

3 thoughts on “5 Quick Ways to Stop a Meltdown

  1. Tracey S. says:

    I will definitely be trying these! My son is almost 5 and is currently un-diagnosed. He goes in October to the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders close to our home. We don’t know what to think about him some days, but I relate to the jumping out of the shopping cart thing immensely. That is his new favorite thing to do at the store, especially if I have to talk to someone. Out he goes and he runs like crazy. So here I am chasing a screaming child through the isles at Wal-mart, begging him to climb back in the cart, which he then claims he is unable to do. Or he is a siren all the way through the store. People like that one! He has started Pre-k this year and is wonderful for them, but horrid when he comes home to me. So any tips are welcomed. I hope these help!

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Hi, Tracey! Thanks for your comment. Boy can I empathize! Reading your experiences brought me right back to those memories. The noises and screaming, the running around like the Tazmanian Devil knocking over endcaps… and everyone looking at you like you can’t discipline your child correctly. I think I lost chunks of hair back in those days. Not to mention the time we had to call the fire department because he fell backwards out of the cart and landed on the top of his head.

      Besides noise-reducing headphones and other distractions, one really cool item I bought worked for months at the store! Your son is just the right age, too. It’s called Supermarket Bingo from Moms on Edge http://www.momsonedge.com/servlet/the-15/SUPERMARKET-BINGO/Detail This kept him engaged in the store so well, I was in tears the first time we went and he was quiet and helpful! Let me know if you decide to try it!

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