Tuesday, October 29, 2019

If Your Child Struggles With Anger, Meltdowns, and Tantrums From Autism, ADHD, or Sensory Processing Disorder--Try This

Meltdowns, tantrums, and anger outbursts are nothing new to many parents who have children with special needs. ADHD, autism, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), as well as kids from trauma who tend to go into fight-or-flight mode, can struggle immensely.  

I am one of those parents who didn't know what to do for my child. I understand the idea that when the "downstairs" brain is triggered, the "upstairs" brain isn't able to properly function. Until we can calm the downstairs brain, we cannot appeal to the upstairs brain.

But what does that mean? How do we regulate the downstairs brain when our children are triggered--and that manifests as anger, tantrums, and meltdowns? 

We have to meet the need.

Sounds simple, right? But of course, it's not. It never is. 

I absolutely believe in being as proactive as possible. That's why we have a home sensory gym. My kids can swing, jump, roll. Gross motor activity is so important--no only for regulation, but for overall health. 

We keep our kids well-fed. They get three balanced, healthy meals and three snacks a day to keep them off the blood sugar roller coaster. Each of my kids also has a water bottle that they are expected to drink from all day at school (or at home). They should arrive home with an empty bottle. Each of my kids has a different color of this water bottle, and my toddler has this smaller version.

We don't overschedule our children. We get them outside as much as possible--for fresh air, gross motor, vitamin D3, and sensory input. We also value sleep, because a good night's sleep is critical to how the next day will go.

But of course, these things aren't always (or even frequently) enough. Some children are prone to having struggles. And in these cases, when they "flip their lid," what are we to do? 

If your child's other needs are met, meaning, they aren't tired, hungry, or thirsty (as emphasized in The Connected Child), perhaps they need something else!

I spoke with a dear friend of mine who is a mom of seven and has several kids with special needs. She'd made each of her kids their own sensory box. It was portable and contained tools that could help soothe them. How brilliant! 

I already keep a bin of sensory toys upstairs in my dining area (of all places) so it's easily accessible to all my kids. This includes our favorite chewy necklace, a wiggle cushion, tangle toys, a suction ball, a fidget cube, vibrating teething toys, therapy putty, and more. 

But it was for the group--not solely for the struggling child. So I decided to make my child something special. It's called an Angry Bowl. 

It's simple. When the child is feeling angry (preferably on the verge of melting down/running off/having a tantrum)--the child says, "I need my Angry Bowl."

Because when the downstairs brain is flipped and the upstairs brain isn't able to maturely communicate need, I made our Angry Bowl super simple: with only three tools inside it. And the great thing is, you may already have everything you need already in your home!

Angry Bowl:

--a plastic bowl with lid

--a handmade label for the top that says "____'s Angry Bowl" and I drew a sad face with an arrow to a happy face

--dye free, peppermint gum, because peppermint can help ease stress and anxiety and chewing meets oral sensory needs

--blue tinted sunglasses (I got mine free from our orthodontist!), because blue is soothing/calming

--a spiky, squeeze ball that fits into one hand, because it can be squeezed or bounced OR this color-changing putty (that changes color from the heat of hands--so the more it's worked, the more quickly it changes color: brilliant!)

The Angry Bowl rules are simple (because they have to be):

--ask for it or take it off the table when you need it (for real--we keep ours on the dining table)

--if you aren't able to ask for it or take it, the parent might sense the child needs it and grab it or ask the child if he/she needs it

--child must use all three items in the bowl. My child puts on the glasses, pops two pieces of gum in, and squeezes/bounces the ball. We do this because initially the child realized they would want their Angry Bowl solely for the gum (when the child wasn't angry)

The goal is that spending some time with the Angry Bowl will regulate the child. THEN you can discuss what happened; what triggered the anger. What can we do next time we feel this way? Do we owe anyone an apology? What should we do next? 

A few tips:

--use the tools that work for your child. If your kiddo doesn't like peppermint gum, try another flavor of "healthy" gum such as wintergreen or cinnamon. If a spiky ball provides too much sensory input, substitute something softer and squishy such as these balls.

--see what you already have. I had a bowl, a spiky ball, gum, and sunglasses. 

--purchase multiple items. I recommend making multiple bowls. Keep one in the car, one in your house, and possibly give one to your child's teacher to use for him/her if the items are approved. You might even have the "angry bowl" added to your child's IEP or 504

--don't put too many items in the bowl. Doing so will overwhelm a dysregulated, upset child. Fewer options (that work) are better.

--if at first you don't succeed, try again! Experiment with the number of items, the types of items (don't forget that color and scent might play a part in the success of the bowl), the rules.

--I've linked multiple must-read books throughout this post. Read them! I've learned so much from authors such as Karyn Purvis (The Connected Child) and Dan Siegel

Remember, you can't reason with a dysregulated child. Until they are brought back to a state of calm and regulation, a "lecture," yelling, etc. are pointless. Plus, a reasonable discussion is so much more productive. Lectures and yelling and chastising and over-disciplining only lead to more dysregulation.

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