3 Supportive Attitudes for Coping With Meltdowns
A therapist's advice for parents of children on the autism spectrum.
Posted January 21, 2023 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- For many parents of autistic children, coping with meltdowns is part and parcel of their parenting journey.
- Meltdowns can be a source of much stress and anxiety for families.
- Carers may find it helpful to redirect their focus away from “getting rid” of a child’s inner experience, to focusing on supportive coping.
- Many components of mindfulness can potentially support families to deescalate distress.
For many parents of children on the autism spectrum, coping with meltdowns is part and parcel of their parenting journey.
Meltdowns can be a source of much stress and anxiety for parents, and research points to a correlation between autistic children’s challenging behaviors and parental stress and depression (Neece et al., 2012).
Despite the relevance of this topic to parents of children on the spectrum, research into meltdowns is limited.
The Autism Research Institute defines a meltdown as an involuntary experience of overwhelm, which differs from a tantrum, that involves a more deliberate attempt to attain a desired outcome (Autism Research Institute, n.d.).
Autistic children can resort to a wide range of coping behaviors in efforts to regulate overwhelm, ranging from mentally withdrawing, stimming, to more destructive behaviors like throwing objects and self-harming.
Due to autism spectrum being heterogenous and every child being unique in their stress triggers, calming triggers, and coping, the below support strategies for parents are intended for general guidance only. For more specific guidance please consult your local health care professionals.
1. Focus on Coping
When human beings experience emotional unwellness, oftentimes their focus is on “getting rid of” their challenging inner experience, which can inadvertently lead to greater distress.
In supporting my little one through a meltdown, I find it helpful to first redirect my focus away from “getting rid” of my child’s inner experience, to match my coping to the demands of a particular situation.
There are numerous suggestions for supporting children on the autism spectrum when coping with meltdowns, including: nourishing a calm environment through appropriate tone (with limited verbal input) and body language, providing access to a sensory soothing activity (such as being in a quiet, comfortable space), or offering an engaging distraction (such as play time with a favorite sensory toy).
In hindsight, parents may find it helpful to make use of the context of a meltdown to consider whether they can de-escalate a similar situation in the future. They can consider factors such as their child’s triggers for stress and relaxation, or putting in place additional/different calming activities.
Additionally, there are factors specific to autism spectrum such as atypical sensory processing, unique understanding of situations, and preference for structure and routine that require consideration when thinking about coping strategies.
Depending on the situation, this may include providing additional clarity and structure via a visual schedule, adjusting the environment to accommodate a child’s sensory needs (for example through providing a quiet activity following a socially demanding one), or helping a child be aware of others’ implicit mental states.
Emotional regulation is an ongoing, lifelong learning process so I encourage parents to be patient with themselves and their loved ones.
2. Self-Soothing Starts with Yourself
A popular metaphor oftentimes taught in counselling courses likens a therapist to a lifeline, where instead of plunging with their client into a pool of overwhelm, a therapist retains their ability to stay grounded in their observing self, offering a grounding anchor. This metaphor alludes to the importance of self-regulation and grounding oneself.
Ridderinkhof et al. (2018) found that mindful parenting was associated with improvements in emotional and behavioral functioning of autistic children.
I assume that many components of mindfulness such as being able to relate to a situation from a place beyond judgement, being aware of one’s inner experience and offering oneself and another compassion, and practicing being present in the moment, offers positive modeling and helps to deescalate distress.
Autism Essential Reads
As a reminder to relate to the present moment with kindness and compassion, carers can use verbal mantras such as: “be kind and stay calm,” “be with this in patience,” “focus on coping,” or physical gestures such as placing their hand on their heart.
Carers can soothe themselves through imagining breathing in patience or courage, while riding the wave of de-escalating the distress, appreciating that a meltdown is a temporary state of overwhelm and will pass. Emotions are contagious and remembering to practice self-soothing and inner kindness can resonate and impact loved ones.
Ridderinkof et al. (2018) summarized the benefits of mindful parenting as: “mindful parenting helps parents to attend in an open, nonjudgmental way to their children, talking their perspectives, and responding calmly instead of reacting automatically. “
3. Go Beyond Judgment
Parents of children on the autism spectrum find that coping with other people’s judgements relating to their child’s stimming or challenging behaviors, including meltdowns, can add to their experience of distress (Saleh, 2020).
There are layers of influences that contribute to external judgmental attitudes, whether society’s limited awareness of neurodiversity, or an individual’s limited judgement of outward behavior, lacking in appreciating its underlying antecedents.
As social creatures, naturally a part of us is affected by an experience of rejection and criticism.
Seeking connection and support from supportive individuals, whether through informal connections such as ones with friends and family members, or formal professional ones, can support parents in feeling more resilient in these situations.
Sometimes (when I feel I have a reserve of inner emotional resources), I may use situations where there is a lack of awareness of neurodiversity to advocate for a loved one. I remember one supermarket incident where a staff member made a comment “I don’t like naughty children” when my son, tired after a dancing practice, started crying. It was an opportunity to raise awareness about the difference between overwhelm and tantrum, as well as advocating for other parents who find labels such as “naughty” unnecessarily adding to their experience of stress.
At other times, I find myself supporting parents of children on the spectrum in intentionally disengaging from focusing on others’ judgement and refocusing their attention on inner support and practicing mindful awareness in the present.
In summary, meltdowns are temporary moments of overwhelm that exceed a child’s ability to cope, and are associated with many combinations of factors such as changes in routine, sensory overload, tiredness, or difficulties in communicating one’s inner experience and asking for support. Attitudes and practices that nourish self-care can go a long way in supporting parents of children on the spectrum in their efforts to facilitate much needed calm, patience, and compassion.
Autism Research Institute. (n.d.) Meltdowns & Calming Techniques in Autism. https://www.autism.org/meltdowns-calming-techniques-in-autism/
NEECE, C. L., GREEN, S. A., & BAKER, B. L. (2012). Parenting Stress and Child Behavior Problems: A Transactional Relationship Across Time. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 117(1), 48–66. https://doi.org/10.1352/1944-7558-117.1.48
Salleh, N. S., Abdullah, K. L., Yoong, T. L., Jayanath, S., & Husain, M. (2020). Parents’ Experiences of Affiliate Stigma when Caring for a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): A Meta-Synthesis of Qualitative Studies. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 55, 174–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2020.09.002
Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. A., Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Brock, M. E., Plavnick, J. B., Fleury, V. P., & Schultz, T. R. (2015). Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), 1951–1966. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-014-2351-z