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temper-tantrumIsn’t that the million dollar question when dealing with a child with special needs? Is your child on the autism spectrum? Does your child have sensory processing disorder or both? Does your child throw a tantrum when they don’t get their way? Or is it bad enough that they hit, bite, pinch and kick?

Toddler Temper Tantrums
Typical children go through temper tantrums when they are 2-3 years old and then again at times when they are older if they don’t get the cookie they asked for, or the latest toy for their birthday. It is typical for children to go through little phases of screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, even a little hitting when they are toddlers, but with some strict parenting and a behavior plan, if should subside.

Extreme Behaviors
If your child is demonstrating extreme behaviors and you are not able to control them, they could be sensory driven, or straight defiant behaviors. And sometimes they can be BOTH! Yikes what do we do and how do we tell?

Determine the Cause(s) of the Behavior
Before you can decide how to handle a tantrum, you need to know what is at the root of the tantrum. Is it sensory or behavior-based.

  • Sensory-Based. Think about your child’s sensory needs. Are they sensitive to lights, sounds, touch? Do they tend to melt down in the same place, like the loud grocery store or birthday parties? Do they tend to meltdown around the same time of day, like after preschool or a full day of school?

Look at the environment that they were in when they began to show the behaviors (crying, kicking, biting, defiance) and then attend to what you have asked them to do or what you have told them. Have you asked them to clean up their toys? Did you tell them “no” when they asked for a cookie from the store? Maybe they are upset because you told them no, but maybe they are upset because the noises are too loud and the lights are too bright.

  • Behavior-Based. Some children seem to have great sensory regulation and they do not appear to be sensitive to any certain texture, or get overwhelmed in certain environments, but they are defiant, scream, throw themselves on the floor etc.
  • Both Sensory- and Behavior-Based. Some children will display both sensory sensitivities and defiance at times, and both of these will result in negative unwanted behaviors.

Tips for Dealing with these Behaviors Based on Cause(s)
Now that you have a better understanding of what is at the root of your child’s tantrum, you can develop an effective plan to deal with it.

  • Sensory-Based. It takes a while to understand exactly what could be causing a given behavior, but if you have a serious concern about your child’s sensory needs and behaviors, seen an occupational therapist (OT). An OT can help you develop an appropriate sensory workout for home and a behavior program.
  • Behavior-Based. If this is strictly a behavioral problem, it can only be fixed with a strict behavior program. At times during intense behaviors and ONLY directed by your doctor, medications can help. I typically only recommend talking to your doctor about medications as a last resort after you have exhausted all other behavioral strategies. At times a behavioral psychologist can help as well.
  • Both Sensory- and Behavior-Based. Seek out an OT to help give you ideas to work on calming strategies, behavioral strategies, and to make sure that mom, dad, grandparents, and school personnel are all on the same page. If you are trying to implement a behavior plan and someone accidentally reinforces a negative behavior, then you have taken steps backwards and you may get new unwanted behaviors. You need to make sure you follow through with your promises and demands.

If the child is old enough to understand a reward chart, it can be helpful to earn stickers or stars to get a reward. If they are not following the rules, then they are not going to earn a sticker and they have to have consequences. This could include “time out” (make sure you don’t put your child in their room and they just play with their toys), taking away the toy they threw across the room, taking away TV and/or computer time, etc. Whatever will really matter to the child needs to be the consequence.

I do not recommend spanking your child because then you are teaching them it is okay to hit. If a child is mad and throws a toy across the room, I walk them over and make them pick up the toy and put it away nicely. If they hit or kick an adult, they have to go sit in time out and then when they get out, they have to say they are sorry to that person. If they are working on a difficult task like a puzzle that is hard, or homework, and they begin to throw a tantrum or yell mean words, they go into time out, but right when they come back out, they have to finish the task. They cannot learn to display unwanted behaviors just to get out of a task.