How to Manage Problem Behaviour


Not many people know this, but I have a perfect child. He has the looks of a young Brad Pitt (and a budding female following to match). He is also perfectly behaved and gives me back rubs. These are all objective, verifiable facts – just ask his grandmother.

Okay, this may be a slight exaggeration. Sometimes he does throw tantrums and he used to do it constantly. As a parent, managing problem behavior is the hardest task I have and sometimes it seems like all I do is say ‘stop’ ‘no’ ‘don’t lick the floor’. The strategies I have for dealing with it were provided to me by the ABA therapy centre Michael goes to and they are very hard, but it is very rewarding to see the results.

Tantrums vs Meltdowns

An important distinction is that between a tantrum and a meltdown. When your child is having a meltdown, they are not trying to get anything from you. Very likely they are not in control of their behaviour. Something has snapped, usually after building up for hours. There will be warning signs for meltdowns but once they happen you just need to make yourself a sea of calm. The more wound up your child is, the calmer you need to be. Keep them from accidentally (or on purpose) hurting themselves, and just ride it out. Remove anything overstimulating. Sometimes Michael is close to a meltdown and I will deliberately remove his iPad. Not because I am punishing him, but because he needs calm and the iPad will overstimulate him.

With meltdowns, the best strategies involve noticing the signs before they happen and de escalating before the event. In therapy, you might work on gradually desensitising your child to whatever the problem is. Or teaching them to communicate their needs better, so they can warn you themselves. Often, a child will have a meltdown when they first start full time school (because of the amount of demands). The best behavioural strategies here are to find the trigger points throughout the school day and work on each individual situation. Maybe with breaks and time outs. It is not ‘ignoring’.

A tantrum is when a child is in control of their actions and are trying to get something from you. You can tell because if you gave them whatever it is they are crying over, they would probably stop crying very quickly.

Identify reasons for the crying

The biggest part of our day is enterprising Michael’s behaviours. ABA helps us with this by providing tools. We look at what happened just before the crying. Did something set him off or did he just start with no apparent reason? Then we look at the behaviour itself. Does he seem in control of it? Is he reaching for something? Is there self harm? And finally we look at what happens after the behaviour. What does it usually get him? Does it get him out of having to do what he was asked to do? Does it get him a reward of some kind?

Reason 1: Something Hurts

Human behaviour is complex and it is often hard to tell why he cries. With Michael sudden and unexplained crying will often be linked to a tummy ache or a headache. He has no way of telling me this is happening and I can’t teach him at the moment. So I give him the benefit of the doubt. If on a particular day he just starts crying with no demands, and nothing happening, I will assume it might be a stomach ache. Especially if he is passing gas a lot or refusing food he usually enjoys. Then I give him some panadol and usually the crying passes in about half an hour.

The thing with pain like that is that it is hard to tell. I can sometimes expect it. For example if he wakes up and is in a bad mood already, or if he hasn’t gone to the toilet for a couple of days, or if he has had an upset tummy. It will also make him more prone to crying at other times. If you are already not feeling well, you are more likely to snap for other reasons too. I will rarely make demands on my child if I know he is not feeling well – I will give him Panadol and rest until he is alright.

Reason 2: He is Overwhelmed

Children with autism can be hypersensitive and they can be hyposensitive. A hypersensitive child will find it hard to fall asleep because they can hear you breathing two rooms down. A hyposensitive child will lick the walls and jump up and down in the search for any sort of sensation. Often they will have elements of both.

A toddler, even without autism, can be easily overwhelmed by emotions that they are not used to dealing with. How much harder must it be when your senses are calibrated differently and have to deal with the modern world?

Usually if Michael is feeling overwhelmed, I get warnings before an actual tantrum. I can see him start to whinge or pull away from a situation and I can usually head off a tantrum before it starts. This will often in fact not be a tantrum, but more of a meltdown, so it is important to prevent them. You should never punish a child for being human.

This doesn’t mean that you always have to create a perfect environment for your child. In fact if you do want them to survive in our everyday world, you probably shouldn’t. What we do is gradually introduce challenging situations and pull back when we feel it’s getting too much for him. Then do it again over and over, day by day. But the trick is that we have to be in control of this. He doesn’t get to throw a tantrum and therefore escape an uncomfortable situation. Or he will throw those tantrums much more often. He either gets to leave before things escalate to this level (we notice the signs) or we just ride it out and then allow him to leave when we say.

There are many tools that exist to help children deal with the sensory onslaught of daily life. Sensory toys, iPads (Oh those wonderful iPads!), water beads, appropriate fidget toys, can all be used to help them. Jumping on a trampoline, hugs from mum, running water, quiet time in a favourite corner, and giant pillows, have all been used in my house.

For older children, other strategies may be more appropriate. Social Stories, invented by Carol Gray in 1991, involve warning a child about changes in their routine (for example, dad going on a business trip) through short stories that explain the situation. They usually involve pictures in a sequence, similar to comic strips and help to explain change.

Reason 3: She isn’t getting something she wants when she wants it, or he doesn’t want to do something you want him to do

This is the classic candy-aisle-in-the-supermarket tantrum. I have seen grown men tremble in the face of such tantrums. The face goes red, the lip quivers and then your little treasure is kicking and screaming on the floor, giving a great impression of a cat being sick on the roof.

The best way to deal with this kind of tantrum, is to ignore it, stay strong, and think of England. Or your end goal, whichever one inspires you more. Whatever you do, do not give her that lolly and do not tell her she doesn’t have to do whatever you asked her to do. Hold firm! Imagine you are a penguin staking out an egg against the elements in Antarctica!

Do not try to distract him with anything loud, or shiny, or sweet. Do make sure she can’t hurt herself and keep her safe while she’s flailing around. The only time he gets the biscuit, or the lolly that he’s asking for, is after he’s done whatever it is you asked him to do.

As far as you can, stay calm and do not lose your temper (says the person that told her toddler to ‘shut up shut up shut up’ only yesterday). I’ve heard that meditation, or very large amounts of wine, help with this. Being rested is also important.

One side note here. If your little one is throwing a massive tantrum every time you are asking her to do a particular thing, you should note what the situation is. Are you asking for too much? Is it too hard? Has she forgotten how to do it and needs to be taught again? Remember to keep your demands very simple at the start. Grow your demands very gradually and the tantrums should be kept down.

If you are having one of those days where you barely have the energy to get into your pyjamas and have a shower, and catch yourself wishing you could put your little one to bed at 3pm, then don’t even try this. Try to avoid any situation where you are going to come up against resistance. Decide immediately – he will be allowed to watch TV for a long time this afternoon, or I will not make her eat her greens today.

It is much better not to even try something if you think you can’t tough it out, than to try and then give in after a tantrum. 

Replace Problem Behaviours

Very often if a child is throwing a tantrum, it is because they are scared, or frustrated, or angry. They may have needs that are not being met, usually because of problems communicating these needs to us. Intensive early intervention can help with this and the key is to replace this behaviour.

Why am I telling you to ignore these tantrums? Partially it’s because it’s bloody annoying and you can’t deal with every single situation that upsets them, being human and all. Partially it’s because you are trying to teach your little one that if they want something from you they need to ask. Depending on where they are on the spectrum and/or in their therapy, what specifically they have to do will vary.

It may just be that you want them to reach for what they want, or you want them to go to their PECS book and grab the right picture and bring it to you, or you may want them to say the appropriate words.

You may have a token system where they have to do a few different things to get what they want.

Whatever it is, they have to know very clearly what you expect them to do, and understand that there is no scenario where screaming or throwing a tantrum will get it for them instead.

This is so important for their wellbeing. They have to learn to control themselves, that violence and self-harm won’t get them what they want. Children on the spectrum often need more of a ‘push’ to do something new and I guarantee that some of the things that upset her the most right now, will be her absolute favourite activities in a month or two.

Reward Good Behaviour

I have seen many parents that are great at ignoring their child’s tantrums. Maybe too good. But the really great parents that get the really good results are the ones that notice, and reward, the good behaviour. You should be noticing and rewarding good behaviour about five times more than you should be ‘ignoring’ tantrums or ‘punishing’ bad behaviour.

It’s very easy to take for granted when your little one does not scream. When they share, or go to the shops without getting overwhelmed, or complete a difficult puzzle.

Even when they do scream but manage to calm themselves down, that is worth a reward. A smaller one than they would get for not screaming at all, but it’s still a big achievement for a little person.

Half the fun of having a child is making a big fuss when they do something awesome! And what can be more awesome than learning to control yourself? I know many adults that haven’t achieved it yet.

So watch them, and when they’re being particularly nice to their baby sister, even though she just took their favourite toy, go nuts! It probably took them as much effort to do that, as it takes for you to be nice to the rude customer last weekend. You got paid for that, so a hug, a kiss and a tickle is not too much to ask.

These strategies, while they sound simple, are very hard to implement. You will know people in your child’s life that cannot do these things – that’s ok, as long as you can and your therapists can, there is enough consistency. It does get much easier after a few weeks and it’s so great to have a well-adjusted, happy child that doesn’t hit or bite or scream. I promise it’s worth it!

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