The Public Meltdown

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Dreading going out and about these next few weeks as holiday happenings require your family’s presence? Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered at the Autism Holiday HQ.

We have all been there as witnesses, and most of us have been there as parents. It isn’t pretty, and it can make us feel more incompetent as a parent than just about anything else. We try not to look when it happens to another parent who is trying to get through the grocery line, or we want to help but don’t want to insult. As a teacher and parent coach I have fielded this question time and time again. Parents ask, “What do I do when my child melts down at the store, mall or while visiting friends and family.”

My response is always the same. The easiest way to deal with behavior is by preventing it in the first place. By using prevention as your first method you can avoid the majority of meltdowns. Here’s some things to think about before going out in public. Keep in mind that children use behavior to communicate.  It is up to the parent to be the detective.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is my child hungry, tired, or not feeling well?
  • Is my child overwhelmed by sensory bombardments such as noise, florescent lights, or visual distractions?
  • Is my child overly sensitive or reactive to changes in routine? (This is big during the holiday season when your child’s sense of predictability is shattered. He may already be on edge due to all the disruptions.)

If you answer “yes” to any of the above, be prepared.

  • Prepare your child ahead of time that things might look, sound, and smell different. There will be holiday decorations and holiday music playing. There might be bell ringers, elves, or even Santa.
  • Rehearse words that your child can use to tell you that these changes are too much for her.
  • Try to do your errands in short bursts. Don’t tax your child by going to multiple places at one time. Try to do just one thing at a time and keep it as short as you can.
  • Keep your child distracted. Stop at the bakery first and take advantage of the free cookie that most grocery stores provide. Bring a beverage. Let your child be in charge of a small shopping list.
  • If your child is a runner, don’t give him the opportunity to take off, use a stroller, cart, or backpack that you can hold on to.
  • When going to someone’s house prepare your host, your child and yourself by finding a quiet room where your child can take a break before he is overwhelmed.
  • Bring familiar toys, books, or a favorite movie.

Even the most thoughtful plan might still end in disaster. Some children give a signal before melting down. If you are lucky enough to notice that your child is on that meltdown ledge, take time to avoid it. Use distraction techniques such as leaving your cart for a moment and go into the restroom to wash hands, or go to the water fountain and get a drink. If you are someone’s house, take a short break in a quiet room, away from others. Don’t worry about what others are thinking. Your child is your first priority!

When a meltdown cannot be avoided keep the following in mind. Your child has entered fight or flight mode, which I like to think of as being on the top of anger mountain.  Think how you feel when you are at the top of anger mountain. It is a similar feeling for your child too. If you meet your child at the top of anger mountain a negative energy storm will occur. It is up to you (as the adult) to keep the storm from occurring. This negative energy storm is reinforcing to your child’s brain chemicals, so try to avoid it by following the following steps.

  • Don’t try to talk to or reason with your child in the middle of a meltdown.  Words are not being processed at this time.
  • Try to remove yourself and your child from the environment. Leave your cart and explain to a salesperson that you will return for it later.
  • Find a quiet area with reduced sensory stimulation.
  • When your child begins to calm down and is approaching the back end of anger mountain, you can begin to talk.
  • Don’t punish your child for what happened, use it as a learning experience.

So go on, get out there. With these tools in your parenting kit, public meltdowns just got a little less scary.

Author: Bonnie

Bonnie is passionate about supporting the whole family and has worked in this field as an educator, parent support group facilitator and parent coach for over 30 years. Read her full bio here.

One Comment

  1. As a parent who has experienced many public meltdowns with my child, I want to add to the sound ideas that Bonnie shared with us. I feel it is really difficult to treat any public meltdown as a learning experience. It feels horrible. I feel like a failure at parenting and am embarrassed to have people see my child out of control. After a recent meltdown I concluded that we just can’t go anywhere until things get better. However, that is not the way daily life works. I can’t just talk to him about how to behave. He needs to practice and have success in the community.

    The learning experience is mine. I have to limit the demands on my child. Planning is important. That means giving him successful public adventures where there are few people and distractions with lots of rehearsal with social stories and schedules.

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