By Jenny Burke — June 26, 2020
Google “autism meltdown” and you’ll get lots of results. But nearly all of them have to do with a child melting down. This post is about when the adult loses patience!
This blog post is personally very embarrassing to me because I am sharing with the world that I’m not a naturally patient person and that I don’t always handle stress well. My kids will cheerfully confirm this! However, in keeping with MooBoo’s mission of helping parents help their autistic kids, I’m swallowing my pride to talk about losing patience with my autistic kid in an honest way.
Before I dive in, I need to make this clear: IT IS NEVER OKAY TO HIT A CHILD.
Autistic kids are at greater risk of abuse than “typical kids.” Many worry, myself included, that this incidence of abuse is on the rise during the pandemic. If you have hit your child, you must seek help immediately. Even if you have not hit your child, but you are often losing total control of yourself, get help! If you do not know where to go, call the National Parent Helpline: 1-855-4A PARENT (1-855-427-2736). I really love the National Parent Helpline slogan: “Asking for Help is a Sign of Strength.” AMEN TO THAT!
Now that’s out of the way, here we go:
What to Do When You Lose Patience with Your Autistic Kid
1. Calm down
Something has set you off. Maybe it was your autistic child’s behavior (or that of a sibling) or maybe you are having a really bad day. Regardless, you need to calm down! Yelling at your autistic kid is not good for the child, or for your relationship with her or him. It can be downright damaging.
Also, it’s not an effective form of parenting. For example, when I yelled at my kid for whining, my overreaction to his behavior definitely did not cause him to stop whining. Even if you have good reason to be upset, such as when a child runs into a street, screaming does not necessarily prevent your child from repeating the offense.
Additionally, your active effort to calm yourself down is effective parenting and is an “in-the-moment teaching” opportunity for you and your child. Many of you are probably thinking, “Wait, teaching? What?! I’m yelling at my kid because I’m super upset, and you say I need to teach them?”
Stay with me. We want kids to learn that nobody is perfect, including them, including their parents. Everybody loses their patience at some point or another. Kids with autism are not bad because they lose it. But we also want autistic kids to learn how to calm down when they become upset. Therefore, when you take steps to calm down, you are being a model for your child.
How to calm down? This is easier said than done and is especially difficult if you can’t walk away and give yourself a timeout. Deep breathing truly helps. Use it as a tool for yourself and you will also be modeling for your child. I also personally like mantras that you can repeat to yourself over and over as needed; e.g., “This will pass, this will pass, this will pass.” (For more on using mantras with an upset child, check out Tips & Topics, “Helping a Child Learn to Cope with ‘No.’”)
Whatever it is you do — be it a real or mental timeout, deep breathing, plugging into music, looking at your phone, etc. — if possible (unless you are too upset) tell your child what you are doing to calm down. Something like, “I’m really upset right now so to calm myself down, I’m going to listen to some music. We’ll talk about this later.” You can also say, “I’m too upset right now to have a conversation, give me some time to calm down.” You do this to model taking active measures to calm down. Use wording/language that is right for your child. Your child’s Speech & Language Pathologist can help with this.
2. Apologize and take responsibility
When you apologize, be specific. Rather than a generic, “I’m really sorry I acted that way,” say, “I’m really sorry that I yelled at you. I was way too loud. I overreacted to what you said.” Specifically describing behavior helps your child understand what you exactly you are sorry about and helps them learn what “overreact” means. (Describing is a really great in-the-moment teaching strategy to build language!)
Your apology should be unconditional and genuine. No “buts”! Saying angrily to a child, “I’m sorry I acted like that, but you pushed me too far,” is not really an apology because you are essentially blaming your child for your poor behavior. If you need to, wait to apologize until you are truly calm and can own up to your own behavior.
3. Correct anything you said in the heat of the moment that isn’t actually true
Do not assume your child will realize that you didn’t mean what you said when you were angry. Many autistic kids think in a very concrete or black-and-white way and are at risk for internalizing things you say. (This is true for all kids.) So for the mom who said to a daughter, “I am so done with you,” that mom needs to make sure her daughter understands that in reality Mom is not giving up on her daughter, nor does Mom want to do something drastic like move out or kick the daughter out.
By the way, if you tend to say these types of things to a child in the heat of the moment: “You’re bad/worthless/not worth the trouble of having”; “I’m sorry I had you”; etc. … that is very damaging to a child. Please don’t do it! I say this with the greatest of urgency: you must seek help for both yourself and for your child.
4. Tell your child you love them and you think they’re a good kid. Make sure your child really understands this!
Again, do not assume your child knows this! To drive this point home, I’m going to throw my husband under the bus. He’s generally a great dad, who deeply loves his kids, but he had very little patience when it came to middle school math. My son shared with his psychologist that he was worried his dad didn’t love him anymore because “Dad gets mad at me when we do math.” Yikes!
Thankfully, he shared that. We had no idea he was thinking that way. Tim was able to reassure him that he loved him very much. (He also resigned as the family math tutor!)
Tell your autistic child often you love them and you think they’re a good kid, especially after you’ve calmed down from losing your temper. Really, do this with all your kids.
5. Debrief on the where, what, when, and why of your meltdown
Do not move on as if this didn’t happen! Make the time to talk about it. As painful as it can be for you, give your child a safe space to tell you how they felt when you blew up. Describe what set you off (do it in a neutral way if it has to do with your child’s behavior) and your own thoughts and feelings.
I found my kid really benefited from visuals — to facilitate communication and learning. He loved the thinking bubbles and talking balloons that either we drew or I printed from the computer. We’d fill them in together. Sometimes he’d write and sometimes he’d tell me what to write.
Danny + I made visuals together on all kinds of things. For this one I created a “form” using my computer. The purpose of the “When I…” heading was to help Danny understand cause/effect of behavior.
Here is one we made after I yelled at him for whining about his stopwatch being “gone forever.” (It was under his blanket.) If you disapprove of my use of the word whining, you definitely have a point. It is harsh-sounding. The bottom line is that in that moment when the stopwatch was “gone forever,” I snapped. I was stressed and tired and sick of things getting lost and being “gone forever.” I was tired of his extremely unpleasant tone of voice and tears over fixable problems (we went through a long phase where this constantly happened).
Doing the visual together gave me a “re-do” with my son, and gave him the chance to share with me how hurt he was when I yelled at him. While doing a debrief will not magically and quickly resolve all negative behaviors (including yours!) or fully erase hurt feelings, I do believe that it can really help.
By the way, I am a huge fan of parents using “debrief visuals” to help a child learn to replace negative behaviors (e.g., communicating by screaming) with functional communication and coping behaviors. To learn more, check out Tips & Topics, “After-the-Moment Teaching.”
6. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Speaking as the Queen of Guilt, I know how hard this can be. I actually just now went upstairs and showed my son this blog’s visual and apologized AGAIN for the times I got mad at him. You know how he replied? “Hey, remember when I really DID lose that stopwatch? I was at that lake out on East Washington. Remember that?” So much for a deep conversation about my parental failings!
You are human and undoubtedly have a lot of sources of stress, exponentially multiplied by this pandemic! Life can get pretty overwhelming. So, let yourself off the hook a little when you lose patience with your autistic kid(s).
7. Get the support you need so you’re less likely to lose it again
There are no easy fixes for the stress you’re living with. But you must try very hard to find the things that will help you cope be it a local parent group or Facebook support community; teletherapy; a virtual meditation or yoga class; or whatever else helps. Do this for yourself. Do this for your kid(s).
8. If it was your autistic child’s behavior that set you off, coordinate with your child’s team on a game plan to help your child learn to replace the unproductive behaviors with more functional, productive behaviors
By “team” I mean all the people who work with your child in and out of school (e.g., school SLP, private therapist, ABA consultant). Ask the team what you can be doing at home to help with this effort. I recommend you constantly “catch” (i.e., make a big deal out of something to reinforce the behavior) your child engaging in productive, functional behaviors such as being flexible, asking for help, sticking with something that is hard, and making an effort to problem-solve or otherwise be independent. Regular reinforcement of even brief instances of positive behavior can truly add up to help your child make progress! There is a lot more on this in MooBoo’s Tips & Topics.
9. If you are running thin on patience because your child’s behavior is often out of control, aggressive, or self-harming, or there is a change in your child’s behavior, seek professional, mental health help for your child
Your child’s behavior might be a warning sign. Kids with autism are vulnerable to depression and anxiety. The upheaval and uncertainty with the pandemic makes them even more vulnerable. It’s critical you’re monitoring your child. This is true for siblings as well. I think this is an excellent resource for parents on the warning signs for depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns when it comes to kids with autism. It’s part of a larger COVID-19 Toolkit to support individuals with autism that includes very helpful, specific strategies.
We can learn from each other! Please share your thoughts on the above as well as your own advice on what to do when you lose patience with your autistic child.
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