Managing Challenging Behaviour and Meltdowns

Amber at her finest ~ covered in foam at a ‘Messy Play’ session.

Challenging behaviour and meltdowns are something that I deal with every day. After working in Childcare for 12 years, (6 years with children with additional needs,) nothing could prepare me for dealing with my own child’s challenging behaviour in the home environment. I have soon learnt that the relationship I had with my pupils is completely different to the emotional connection that I have with my own daughter, Amber (4.) I have learnt that certain strategies that may have worked with the children I looked after do not work with Amber.
I quickly had to learn the important huge difference between a ‘temper tantrum’ and a ‘meltdown.’ As Amber has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) with traits of ASD and ADHD, she can experience ‘Sensory Overloads’ and this often results in a ‘meltdown.’ This is when I describe that she is no longer in control of her emotions, I’m often describing that Amber is neither ‘naughty’ or ‘spoilt,’ these are meltdowns are occurring because there’s a sudden loud noise, a change of routine or she has become overwhelmed in a supermarket from the noise, the lights, the sheer volume of people. Amber has difficulty recognising that she’s feeling overwhelmed and therefore will display her feelings via kicking, hitting, pushing, throwing items, pushing her younger sister over, pulling stairgates off walls, thrashing herself about, banging walls or doors, spitting, screaming or shouting.

At 18-months-old I first noticed that Amber was a ‘sensory seeker,’ she would actively seek out anything that would provide a sensory input, for example, she enjoyed running the taps in any bathrooms and feeling the water run through her hands. I found that her temper tantrums were frequently and I was constantly told that this was “normal for her age,” and that she would “grow out of it.” By the age of 3 she became a big sister and I had prepared myself for her behaviour to become more challenging, the advice I was given was that this should only be a ‘stage’ and that after she was used to having a new baby in the family, then her behaviour would improve, however it didn’t, and as time went on she became increasingly worse, and would display on the whole as compliant in her Early Years setting but extremely challenging at home, she would target her baby sister by pulling her legs and trying to tip over her Moses basket, the jealousy she felt toward her baby sister was quite extreme. By the age of 4 I started to recognise certain things that Amber didn’t like, that she would avoid, for example, physical contact – she would only give out cuddles on her terms and when she did they were very tight cuddles! She also became anxious around unexpected loud noises like motorbikes when outside and she could hear aeroplanes and grass cutters long before I could! It was around her 4th birthday that I would say that Amber’s ‘extreme meltdowns’ started. These were sometimes around 10 times a day and some would last over an hour, and I found it incredibly difficult to deal with as it was such unknown territory for me. The main triggers for a meltdown are:

• Unexpected loud noises,

• Changes to routine – finds school holidays very difficult.

• Wanting something that she cannot have – usually centred around food, as Amber cannot tell when she feels full.

• Public places – usually indoors – supermarkets, libraries, sports halls, swimming pools, cinema, theatre.
I can usually gauge when Amber is on the verge of a meltdown, she becomes extremely restless, will talk quickly and will jump, clap her hands in front of her face or try and climb onto anything she can to jump off.

I use a range of strategies to help avoid a possible overload:

• Visuals – to display routines of what is happening during each day, traffic light system – to help Amber identify if she needs to free play (green,) find a calm activity such as playdough (orange,) or go to her ‘calm zone, (red.) I also use individual cue cards and fans, e.g to show ‘kind hands.’

• Always carry Ear defenders – in case of loud noise, e.g. at the train station.

• Listening to fears, worries, frustrations and what makes her angry – talking through exactly what the problem is if she is willing to share. This is a recent strategy that has worked once I noticed more challenging behaviour days before a Halloween party, we talked and Amber said “Mummy I’m scared of Halloween.” I could then address this to avoid an overload.

• Keeping calm myself – this is easier said than done! It is one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever had to go through and I’ve always been told that I’m a calm person but it’s very difficult to handle when you are being challenged daily, and you’re the main person that your child outlets with, there was a time when I felt completely hopeless and my self-confidence took such a knock. But staying calm allows situations to be diffused, if my voice is raised then Amber will also raise hers, but If I remain calm, then she calms quicker.

• Avoiding the word “No” – we use strategies to avoid demands on Amber, if she hears the word no, she can become even more angry. We phrase instructions carefully, for example, when getting dressed for school: “You put your socks on, or I can help.” This can be quite challenging for us to think of at times!

• Distraction – Amber thrives on sensory and messy play experiences as part of her ‘Sensory Diet,’ If I plan experiences when she’s at home, such as playdough, sand and water play, foam play, etc she is satisfied in terms of her ‘sensory seeking,’ and I find that her level of concentration is much higher whilst engaging in this type of play.

I have learnt over time that there are specific strategies that can help during and after a meltdown:

• Breathing exercises, e.g. lying down and counting to 10 with a teddy on her tummy. Smelling the flower (breathing in,) and blowing out the candle (breathing out.)

• Calm area – a specific area of the house, including blankets, cushions, bubble tube, sensory toys.

Amber’s ‘Calm Area’ is under the stairs, as she prefers smaller spaces.

• Wrapping up in a blanket – Amber responds to a ‘weighted blanket,’ and likes to feel safe and contained.

• If in full meltdown mode, (as I haven’t had up-to-date restraining training,) I have been advised to ensure that Amber is safe, e.g. that she cannot bang her head and that I leave the room with her younger sister for safety, but keeping Amber in sight.

• Offering a reassuring cuddle once a meltdown is over, to talk about what happened later, once she is much calmer and try to establish what the problem was.

• Rocking and cuddling tightly can help to calm her.
I felt completely lost after having my second child when Amber’s challenging behaviour peaked, I would have appreciated someone to advise me that everything would be alright. Now I try and help other parents as much as I can, this is one of the reasons why I started my Blog in March 2016, I’ve always said that if I could just help 1 other person it would be worth it.

My top tips for parents who experience challenging behaviours from their child are:

1. Connect with other parents – via social media support groups and local support groups. I attend a parent’s support group, for those that have children with additional needs, which is run from my local children’s centre I have also joined a local support network where there are meet-ups for parents to connect and for the children to interact. This is such a huge support for both myself and my partner, to talk to other parents who know where we’re coming from and have been through similar experiences, this allows us to share tips and ideas and provides a reassuring emotional support.

2. Research – time is precious and we lead such busy lives, but I’ve found it so useful to research the reasons behind challenging behaviours in children, via internet searches and reading various books. There is a fair amount of reading material out there and I’ve found a lot of helpful books that offer information on dealing with anger in children. I have soon learnt that ‘there is a reason for every behaviour,’ and this has put it all in perspective for me, to stop and ask myself: “Why is this particular behaviour happening?”

3. Never be afraid to ask for help and support – in the beginning I saw asking for help as a weakness, I was embarrassed after working in childcare and that I was struggling to cope with my own child’s behaviour at home. But once I contacted my local children’s centre, and was offered Family Support this turned our whole family life around. Our family support worker made weekly visits to offer advice and strategies to support us to deal with the challenging behaviours that Amber displays. Without this vital support our whole family life would have suffered.

4. Always carry a ‘Fiddle’ bag or box wherever you go! This has prevented many meltdowns, especially whilst out and about, providing a distraction and something to focus on if I recognise the signs of Amber becoming restless, or on the verge of a sensory overload.

Squeezy/stretchy toys and fiddly toys – such as a ‘Tangle.’

5. Believe in yourself! – As someone who’s parenting strategies have been constantly scrutinised, this has really knocked my self-confidence, as Amber is a very good masker of her difficulties and she tends to offload mainly with me, I’ve now learnt that this is because she feels most safe with me and that it is nothing that I’m doing wrong. Believe that you are doing a good job. Take a deep breath and try to offer yourself little ‘brain breaks,’ I go upstairs for 5 to 10 minutes and sit quietly in a dark room once Amber’s daddy returns home from work. It is very difficult to find time for me, bit this is so important.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Spectrum Sunday

“Learn to control it” 

Lou has a big ‘special interest’ in Queen Elsa from the film ‘Frozen.’ When she is asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everytime she answers: “Queen Elsa,” wow my girl has high ambition! She likes to dress as Elsa, role-plays Elsa and Anna and sometimes the only time she will let me tie her hair up is if i say “you’ll look like Queen Elsa!” 

Queen Elsa had to learn to control her special powers to avoid others being fearful of her and she had to learn how to be accepted.

It was during a course I attended yesterday called ‘Understanding Autism‘ (which was run by ‘Autism West Midlands,’) that the comparison of Lou to Queen Elsa came to me. As a group we discussed strategies for dealing with anger, outbursts and sensory overloads. One of the things I think will come with age is for Lou to understand the signs of a meltdown for herself and to be able to recognise when she needs to take herself off to her calm place before she hits out, shouts, screams, throws objects and spits. 

After a fairly big meltdown yesterday afternoon, and when Moo was having her afternoon nap, once Lou was calm I spoke to her about how being angry makes her feel and I was astonished when she said “my head was red mummy.” She too experiences what I describe as ‘The Red Mist.‘ Something that I am familiar with, especially when I was a teenager. If I was being called names at school, being picked on or if I’d got something wrong, such as my homework, I’d hold in my anger and frustrations for the rest of the day and once I got home, I usually went up to my room and let rip, I’d cry, scream and generally throw things about. From talking to my parents this isn’t something I did as a child, as I was extremely calm and passive, it was like I’d been saving it all up for my teenage years! What I had to do was learn to control these feelings and I’ve got better with age. At times of great stress I do tend to see this ‘Red Mist‘ again, but now I usually go for a walk once Lou’s daddy gets home, or I take myself off to my room for a quiet few minutes. What I’ve found is that if I’m trying to teach Lou to “stay calm” and take a “deep breath,” then I have to be the positive role model, and refrain from shouting or completely losing it, no matter how hard this may be! I find Lou’s meltdowns extremely difficult to deal with, other people may deal with this kind of thing differently, but I find it very challenging when she’s screaming at me as I’m not a fan of loud noises and I have a perferation on my ear drum and if I’m near a loud noise it vibrates and causes discomfort. I’m also not a fan of confrontations and physical harm. I want to run away when Lou is hitting out at me and I know that as her mother it is my duty to keep her safe from harm.

Yesterday was the first time I had sat in a room with other parents who experience the same on a daily basis, this was a big step for me and so reassuring. I have a few meet-ups and a trip coming up over the next few weeks with other parents who have children with additional needs, something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while now. It’s very reassuring to talk to other people that know what your going through and have been there. 

My hope this that, with time, Lou will recognise the signs for herself and take herself off to her ‘calm zone,’ or go and lie on her bed before it gets to the point of a meltdown. I hope to use her special interest in Queen Elsa to use as a role model who learnt to control her ‘powers.’ 

For more information visit:

Autism West Midlands

To find a local support group in your area visit: 

SPOKAN

And visit Facebook: 

@spokanuk
Thanks for reading 🙂 

This girl loves her ‘Queen Elsa’ dress, even if it is fashioned with a red Power Ranger mask!

Spectrum Sunday

A Sensory Diet 

My understanding of Sensory Processing. 

We all explore the world via our senses. The brain has a filter system that allows us to only pay attention to what is most important at that time. This filter may not work in the same way for some people. They may experience things differently,  as I always say: “My child sees the world differently.” This may lead to a ‘sensory overload’ due to experiencing many sensations all at once. In our case, a ‘sensory overload’ manifests itself as a ‘meltdown,’ where items are throw, hitting out, screaming and unable to cope with the current situation. We remove Lou to a safe and calm place, she has a ‘calm tent’ where she can access cushions,  blankets and her calming sensory toys.

As we know the senses are:

▪ Sight

▪ Sound

▪ Smell

▪ Taste

But there are also senses related more directly to movement:

▪ Vestibular – sense of balance and position of the head.

▪ Tactile – sense of touch.

▪ Proprioception – our sense of body position, pressure, movement.
There are people who are ‘Hypo’ (under sensitive) and be seen as a ‘sensory avoider. ‘ on the opposite side, some people may be ‘Hyper’ (over sensitive) or seen as a ‘sensory seeker.’ In my experience, Lou is on the whole a ‘seeker’ – although has some ‘avoider’ tendencies, e.g dislikes showers, swimming and having hair brushed amongst others!

What is a Sensory Diet? 

A sensory diet is a planned scheduled activity programme that is designed to meet a child’s sensory needs. This can change over time as the child’s behaviour changes. The application of the sensory diet is used both as a treatment strategy and also to prevent behaviour challenges. A sensory diet is important just as it is to have a balanced food diet, we need a balance amount of sensory information to allow our bodies to function. The sensory diet with aid a child to self regulate their behaviour, emotions and attention.

The benefits of using a balanced sensory diet are:

▪ To handle changes/transions with less stress.

▪ To reduce sensory seeking and avoiding – in particular unwanted behaviours.

▪ To help increase attention, alertness and emotions.

This sensory checklist from ‘Raising a Sensory Smart Child,’ © Biel & Peske, 2005,

Will allow parents to see what specific areas can be worked on in terms of sensory diet experiences, this can be found here:

www.sensorysmarts.com

(Click ‘Sensory Checklist.’)

In terms of this checklist in our personal experience:

Touch:

Lou on the whole, for touch is a definite avoider, she particularly dislikes clothing seems, and takes her socks off moments after having them on! She wears leggings and soft T-Shirts everyday. Lou is not a fan at all, of the shower, having her hair washed or brushed. Although, the exception to touch is that she is a seeker in terms of messy hands,  face, others parts such as legs. In materials such as glue, paint, lotion, sand etc. She thrives on these type of activities.

Proprioception: (body sense) 

Lou is a seeker in all movement, such as rough housing, jumping, climbing, etc. She is a risk taker and thrives on impulsive and risky actions, for example, jumping off steps at height, she literally has no fear! Lou prefers dry, crunchy foods,  she isn’t keen on soft textured or runny foods,  especially sauces.

Vestibular: (movement sense)

In terms of balancing, riding equipment, spinning, climbing – especially stairs, Lou is a definite seeker. She enjoys being lifted up in the air and twisted down so her head is facing the floor! She also enjoys bring twirled around by an adult.

Listening/Auditory:

Lou comes across as loud, she talks loudly and will create her own sounds to mask other louder sounds, for example, when Moo was a tiny baby crying, the hoover, motorbikes passing by,  etc. She isn’t keen at all on sudden unexpected noises, and can hear sounds far away that I can’t even hear! E.g aeroplanes,  grass cutters, if Lou has been in a loud environment with a lot going on, she may try and escape, e.g a sports hall, or hold in her sensory overloads until she reaches the safe place of home and will often have a meltdown. Lou made sounds whilst she ate even from 6 months old, when she first started eating sold foods, this came out as humming. She still does this humming and now sings whilst concentrating at an activity and when eating.

Looking/Vision: 

Lou has a ‘thing’ about screens, e.g an ipad. She used to be more into the TV but lately she gets absolutely absorbed in the ipad, in fact this is the only time she isn’t moving or talking! Lou has been interested in colours from an early age, she enjoys watching her gel droppers, rainbow projector and goes to sleep with her bubble tube on, which projects changing colours onto her ceiling. Lou dislikes the dark, she will always have a light on somewhere at bedtime, or she can’t settle.

Taste/smell/oral comforts: 

Lou smells everything – play dough,  new toys, books etc. She will notice a change in perfume and often says: “what’s that smell?” It may be a new air freshener or that something is cooking. Lou will chew on toys, and will try and get Moo’s dummy to chew on! She now has a safe Chewigen bracelet and necklace if she has the need to chew. These were from: http://chewigem.co.uk/

Sensory diet activity ideas:

Touch/deep pressure:

Swaddling

– Bear hugs

– Massage with or without lotion

– Joint compressions

– Therapy brushing

– Jump on cash pad – can always be homemade with sofa cushions and pillows.

– Hand fidgets

– Mixing cake ingredients

– Vibrating toys – we have a vibrating neck cushion.

– ‘Messy play:  Finger paints, glitter glue, soapy foam/shaving foam, whipped cream, custard play.  Spaghetti cooked or dry, rice dyed with food colouring, sand play, play dough,  Gelli Baff, Magic Snow, Gak, clay.

– Helping with gardening

Cornflour, water and pink food colouring
Sand painting – mixed with PVA glue and paint
Foamy sand – sand mixed with water and washing up liquid
Cooked Spaghetti play
Coloured rice – using pink food colouring
Soapy foam (Olaf) bought from a supermarket, gentler than shaving foam for children’s skin. As both Lou and Moo have dry skin.
Vibrating neck cushion, Lou likes to use around her arms or waist
‘Fiddle toys’ from Learning SPACE, including stretchy men, dinosaur, butterflies, stretchy Spaghetti, etc

Movement/Proprioception:

– Rocking – in arms, rocking horse or chair.

– Running, marching, dancing, jumping.

– Bunny hops, wheelbarrow walk, animals walks.

– Monkey bars

– Climbing stairs

– Climbing ladders

– Trampoline jumping

– Use a ‘Sit and Spin.’ Or other spinning toy.

– Therapy ball – we have a ‘Peanut ball.’

– Swimming

– Brain Gym and Yoga exercises

– Balloon tennis

– Hopscotch

Using her Peanut ball, independently or it came with ideas for exercises with children. 


Listening/Auditory: 
-Listening to favourite music

– Calming (classical music)

– Bang pots and pans

– Musical instruments

– Listening to outdoor/nature sounds (have a phone app)

– Singing, humming, blowing whistles

– White noise (phone App)

– use headphones or sound cancelling headphones

– Use a safe space with quiet and low light – ‘calm tent’

Music session with mummy, exploring the instruments

Looking/Vision: 

– Lava lamps, bubble lamps

– Coloured light bulbs

– Toys in opaque containers

– Look at photos

– Look at picture books

– Look at nature – fish tanks, farm, zoo, seaside

– Games and activities that develop visual skills,  mazes, dot-to-dot, I Spy, etc.

‘Rainbow in my room’ projector from Learning SPACE
Bubble tube from Learning SPACE, I filled with Distilled water. Includes some fish and balls to put inside tube. Changes to various colours and projects onto ceiling.
Gel droppers which are inside the ‘calm tent’ 

Smell/taste/oral comforts: 

– Essential oils and scented candles

– Smell flowers

– Smell herbs and spices

– Blindfold smelling game

– Explore tastes: sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter

– Eat frozen, cool, warm foods

– Bubble blowing

– Use an age appropriate ‘Chewy’

Banana scented dough

A lot of Lou’s sensory equipmemt and toys came from ‘Leaning SPACE.’ Ordered online here: http://www.learningspaceuk.co.uk/

The products are reasonably priced and we received a prompt delivery, I will be ordering more for Christmas this year!

Through starting to use the sensory diet approach for the past month, I’ve already noticed that whilst absorbed in these activities, Lou is calmer and focused. She will often create her own opportunities, even if I haven’t provided them. For example, she will find a wet chalk outside and rub it into the concrete slabs to feel the texture on her hand. She is also always seeking for water play, she fills the sink and will explore soap – I do have to keep an eye on this as she does like to flood my bathroom!
It may be easier to put sensory diet ideas and activities into a chart of plan to clearly see whats to be worked on. Examples can be quite simple:

Source: Google search: ‘sensory diet plans.’ 

Or a little more detailed:

Source: Google search: ‘sensory diet plans.’ 

I am currently working on a sensory diet plan for Lou over the next few weeks as she transitions from ending Pre School to the 6 week holidays, in preparation for starting ‘big school,’ in September!

Thanks for reading 🙂

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Count to 10!

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I’m writing this post on the back of a meltdown, all is calm(er) now but only 30 minutes ago I can only describe the scene as ‘bedlam.’ It always amazes me how Lou can go from 0 to 100 mph during a meltdown.  It was triggered by food, as I had only written a few days ago in the the post ‘I’m hungry.’ Only just after lunch and Lou is demanding food again she’s eaten an ample amount. She sees red and throws my I pad onto our hard kitchen floor, how it didn’t smash I don’t know! Because I wasn’t giving in she then yanked the stairgate clean off the kitchen, I’m surprised I’ve got any door frames left!
I have to therefore remove her to her ‘safe zone’ in her ‘calm tent.’ Immediately after I get any item she can lay her hands on thrown at me and somehow I slipped down the stairs dodging them.
I return a few minutes later to find a calm Lou,  however the reason she was quiet is because she’d been ‘exploring’ some Sudocrem she’d found and it’s been rubbed into the fairly new carpet! 
It always amazes me how Lou is so ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ can see red one minute and the next is talking as if nothing has happened!
I have wondered to myself if it’s just me that finds this behaviour extreme, I was a shy and reserved child that wouldn’t have spoken out of place or hit out at anyone. I am a fairly calm and reserved adult, I admire Lou’s spirit and hope that she will use this spirit to not allow herself to be walked all over and to be able to stick up for herself. I do wonder if every 4 year old behaves like this at home! As I’ve only ever experienced other 4 year old’s through my work. I’m often told that “many children behave like this” but when it happens everyday, up to 10 times a day I do question it.
I imagine Lou gets the same sort of head rush that I do during one of her meltdowns, it literally feels like my brain is bouncing from one side of my skull to the other, the only way to try and get through this feeling is to:

Breathe and count to 10!

Several times! And try to stay calm!

I’m often left with a massive headache after a full – on meltdown, especially those where there is destruction. I manage that Lou feels very much the same.