One way or another, we’ve all witnessed them – those uninvited guests in our home. The meltdowns and tantrums are a hostile “visitor” in the family of isms. Although they may resemble each other, the two behaviors are quite different.
Typically, a temper tantrum occurs when a child does not get his own way. In this unwanted behavior, a child is seeking attention and looking to manipulate a situation. Once the child gets what he wants, the tantrum is over. It’s more of a power play.
In a meltdown (very common in those with autism), the resulting behavior explosion can be the result of an overwhelming number of other issues (including sensory challenges, environmental factors and fear).
Occasionally tantrums and meltdowns overlap or look similar; so for purposes of this article, we are going to assume that ignoring is an approach that might work with the behavior in question.
Is it a tantrum or a meltdown? You be the judge. Sometimes it’s not so clear.
A mother takes her three children to the pediatrician’s office. Two children are busily drawing with colored pencils while their younger sibling is repeatedly twirling his pencil in his curly hair. The mother is talking with the pediatrician and all the children seem content. The older children ask for the colored pencil that the younger sibling is holding. He continues to twirl the pencil in his hair not wanting to give it up. The mom sees the situation and asks the child to please give up the pencil that he’s “not using” and BOOM a monster meltdown ensues for two hours.
A child is at a busy store where Christmas music is booming, holiday lights are flashing and people are crowded in lines like sardines. At the checkout, the child asks his mom for a candy bar to which she replies, “No, honey, we need to go home and have lunch.” The child drops to the floor, kicking, screaming and thrashing around. The mom picks up the child, abandons her cart and leaves the store.
Systematic or strategic ignoring is purposely withholding one’s attention from a child while he engages in unwanted, inappropriate or difficult behavior especially if it is attention-seeking behavior. Although it sounds easy, it is very difficult for some parents and educators to undertake.
The primary goal should be to avoid the tantrum or meltdown altogether. Typically there is something that triggers the outburst. If it can be identified, sometimes it is acceptable and appropriate to stop the trigger, but that is an entire article in and of itself. Let’s focus on how to put into practice the “art of ignoring.”
The Simple DON’Ts to Ignoring
- Don’t look at the child
- Don’t talk to him (at all – not quietly, not nicely, not calmly – nothing)
- Don’t react to him
- Don’t smirk, frown or show any facial expressions
- Don’t “feed the monster” or the meltdown with more energy
The Not-So-Simple Dos
- Keep your cool (deep breathing and calm demeanor – or at least fake it!)
- Ignore the behavior, not the child
- Walk away from the immediate area, but stay nearby to ensure your child’s safety
- Find a way to distract yourself from the behavior (wash dishes or “read” the paper)
- Engage quietly with others in the area who are not displaying the negative behavior
Behaviors You Might Not Be Able to Effectively Ignore (child might need to be relocated for safety)
- Those that are dangerous to the child (self-abusive or safety hazards)
- Those that become dangerous for others within his reach (hitting, biting, kicking, throwing)
- Hazardous destruction of property (throwing a TV or breaking a window out)
- Extreme noise in a public environment (at the store or in a restaurant)
Post Meltdown Strategy
- Make sure the meltdown behavior is complete BEFORE engaging the child
- If the child isn’t ready to take in verbal communication, try visual supports
- Reward and model positive behavior
- Debrief with your child what happened and potentially what caused the meltdown
- As the adult, think back on any potential triggers that may have caused the behavior
- Work with those potential triggers in the future with redirection, visual supports or whatever works
Initially, utilizing this strategy may seem ineffective, because initially, the behavior may get worse before it gets better, but “don’t blink!” Meltdowns or tantrums can get longer and worsen when you begin this strategy. Another key is that it is so helpful for everyone in the home and classroom to be “on the same song sheet.” When this strategy is used by a team, it’s extremely effective at gradually reducing and eventually extinguishing the behaviors more rapidly. Never give into a meltdown. It will only increase the frequency of future meltdowns/tantrums by rewarding the unwanted behaviors. Another vital tip is to begin these strategies as early in age as possible. The sooner you and your child work together to find triggers and reduce the meltdowns, the better it will be for all involved in the long run. Trust me; it’s much easier to work with little ones in eliminating these behaviors. I’ve experienced many meltdowns with my adult students and it can be very dangerous for anyone in their vicinity.