By: K. Rielly
In the heat of the moment, when those “terrible two’s” begin to take hold of your child for the first time, it can be tough to recognize what is happening versus what it “feels” is happening. But that outburst isn’t coming from a place of disrespect or disobedience; it’s an outburst of independence or frustration or exhaustion or over-excitement with no finish line in sight.
As adults, we self-regulate all day long. When we’re bored, we fidget or eat or hum. When we’re stressed, we smoke or bite our nails or go for a run. When we’re excited, we get the jitters but know how to stand still in anticipation.
Toddlers, especially those on the spectrum, can have a hard time keeping these different feelings in line. The emotions might be extreme in one instance and multiplying in the next and overwhelming. Sometimes the only way to achieve release is to scream and kick and thrash. (To be honest, I wish I could scream at the top of my lungs a few times a day too! Like when I always seem to pick the wrong lane at the store, and I’m super pressed for time, and then the fossil in front of me reaches for her checkbook! AH OMG!!!)
As much as we want to yell back and have them prepare for punishment, we can use these opportunities to teach them how to self-regulate.
The very first step is for you, Mama:
Take A Deep Breath
Staying calm is super challenging, I know, and you may not be able to do this every time, and that’s okay too. Your child will pick up on your zen, so the calmer and softer you speak will change the entire atmosphere for them.
Create A Chill Out Space
There’s a big difference between a punishment corner and a chill out space, and that’s determined by how you lead your child there. Choose a cozy spot, away from the toys and TV, where you both can get a moment of peace. Walk your child (or pick them up if they’ve already turned into a bag of wobbly limbs) and sit with them. You don’t have to say anything, and in fact, that’s better since it’s hard to listen when their senses are out of control. And sitting near them assures that this is not punitive.
Model deep breathing and do your best to ignore any acting out. When you feel like your child is starting to wind down, turn to them and ask if they want a hug or to continue playing.
When we first started using our chill out spot, I think we sat probably ten times that day. He protested the novelty of it at first. After a few days, we visited less and less, and the following week he started walking over to the chair on his own. (My new challenge was not to burst into laughter when he got mad at his lego building, crushed it, then walked himself over to his chill chair!)
Create a Head Banging Mat
On days when my son was sick or constipated, it is the hardest for him to deal with anything. He started banging his head on the walls, floor, furniture, or anything that was near. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to watch your child self-harm, and I needed to keep him safe, but we couldn’t get him to stop hitting.
I bought a memory foam bath mat from Target, a cushy place for him headbang. Anytime it seemed he had the urge; I gently place him on the mat. He then hit his head once or twice against the rug. The mat was so soft that he learned that he could get input from rubbing his face on the fabric. We used this mat for a long time. Eventually, the urge to hit lessened and the mat was used in association with feelings of frustration as a form of comfort.
Say “Hands Down” instead of “Don’t Hit.”
This one is super hard to retrain your brain to do. Usually, we tell our children the thing we don’t want them to do, rather than the opposite. When kids are all wound up, hearing “Don’t Hit” is reinforcing the word “Hit.” The more you say the word hit, the more that word is being listened to and sticking in their little minds.
Try to keep in mind the affirmative action you want them to learn. And if your toddler is anything like mine, there will be plenty of opportunities to practice. More examples: Quiet Voice (instead of stop screaming) and Walk Slow (instead of stop running).
Create Transitions To Prepare for Change
Most of the tantrums in my house come from changes that my son doesn’t want. A change in activity, toy, meal, or a trip out can either go unnoticed or be a complete disaster, and there’s no in-between for us.
Preparing him for changes, when I can, has helped tremendously in his ability to transition and self-regulate. We use the phrase “One more than all done,” quite a bit and it’s just the amount of warning he needs to adjust.
I also talk to him about our schedule. For example, if I tell him we’re going to the grocery store, but I stop at Dunkin Donuts on the way, all hell breaks loose in the back seat. (For real kid, I ALWAYS stop at Dunkin, that should be a given) But my son is very literal, so I have to remember to tell him about the little stops too. He likes to know where he’s going and this helps give him time to prepare for the new environment before he’s entered it.
Can you imagine if your significant other was driving to breakfast on a Saturday and then pulled into Walmart on a whim for just a “Few quick things.” Yeah, no way. I need time to prepare for the battle that is this retail store on a SATURDAY. You can’t just spring that on someone. I need a game plan, ney, an escape plan!
I keep this scenario in mind when talking to my toddler about our schedule.
Grab More Coffee
These are just a few suggestions that worked at different times, or still, work with my son. You may find other things, even like counting to 5 with them can be the calm down strategy they need. And while you’re a great mama full of zen on the outside, make sure you’re grabbing another cup of coffee for your inside, I know this is hard work. I won’t look while you pour that coffee out and fill it with wine. Fill me up one too, please.
K. Rielly is a part-time writer and full-time mama to an adorable autistic toddler. Her favorite hobbies include naptime, drinking coffee, and trips to Target.