Another day another argument. Let me describe for you what I’m thinking about. A child is playing a play station, father walks up and says, ‘time to get off’. ‘In a minute’, is the reply. Then he’s asked again, ‘ no just let me do this first’. I can see dad’s temperature rising. He walks up, grabs the controller off him. World War III ensues. ‘I hate you, you’re always think you have to be in charge’ why can’t I do what I want!’. Father yells back, tantrums continue. So much for nice family time, so much for trying to set rules and boundaries, so much for previous promises that he will get off the PlayStation calmly.
There are a few factors going on here that are contributing to the child’s behaviour. One is that he has autism (ASD) and Attention Deficient Disorder (ADHD). However this is a stuggle for many children and parent’s without those disorder. He has great difficulty with regulating his emotions on the best of days. This is somewhat due to the way his brain is wired, and part of this is the pre-frontal cortex works. The prefrontal cortex is comprising roughly one-third of all cortical grey matter. It is the part of the brain involved in social, language, communication, affective and cognitive functions. It means that this part of the brain is a bit less active, or according to some evidence has too many cells, so thinking things through and seeing what will happen if he acts this way is already a challenge. It leads to kids being more impulsive. This is also true for all children however. The brain continues to develop and this part of the brain finishes developing during the mid-20s. This means for our example, a child with ASD (Autism), it extra hard. There is also the fact that games release a lot of happy neurotransmitters for kids, so he’s just had a big hit of serotonin, which is like taking a recreational drug. That tells you he’s just gone from a massive high, to a huge come down. To boot, he is now being yelled at by his parents. This has activated his flight or fight response. He now is flooded the stress hormones, including cortisol. This makes him very tense, rapid breathing, and anything happening around him is very hard to hear or see. He’s in the middle of an emotional storm and isn’t responding to any attempts to his parents to help him calm down.
With time, when he decides, he does go to his room after some stomping and door slamming. He is attempting to calm down. Dad comes along and yells at him again, why can’t he accept the rules, why can’t he behave like other kids, why is he always rude? This starts the whole flight or fight process again. The dad is mirroring the son’s behaviour, going away, calming down, and then then when he sees his son again, it triggers thoughts and his anger flares again. It’s a difficult situation. What can change in this scenario?
First things we must take note of are:
- Biological processes for the child and father
- Underlying conditions e.g. asd
- Social rules and expectations in the house
- What else has happened that day
Lots of other factors (e.g. tiredness, other issues during the day etc)
Let’s think about what we can change in this scenario. It might seem obvious that the child needs to learn to behave, accept consequence and perhaps be punished for his behaviour, e.g. No play station for a day, week etc. that’s great as a first step. That would be the easy solution. What if you’ve done that and it doesn’t work? When you are dealing with a child who is not neurotypical you might need to adjust your approach. You need to remember the core principle that will help defuse any situation, ‘stay calm ‘.
Staying calm during these highly emotionally charged situations is hard. It means being able to take your own feelings out of the situation and focus on the bigger picture. The calmer you can be, the more likely you are deescalating the situation. You are modelling to your child how to be calm despite having big angry emotions. It means you are taking charge if the situation, you haven’t given in, you are recognised that your child needs help, and that you are the best person to help them with manage the ‘big ‘emotions they are feeling.
Changing your perspective of the situation is the first thing you need to do, it can be helpful to see them as someone who is struggling with their feelings, rather than taking it personally. It doesn’t help to think thoughts like ‘I’m in charge here, ‘why can’t you just behave’, I can’t cope with this behaviour’. While you may think those things in the moment, they are not helpful to you. It is much more useful to think ‘I will get through this’, ‘I can help them with this struggle’, ‘it must be hard for them to be so angry right now’. That obviously means engaging with your own empathetic side and not your angry side. It’s like listening to the tune of the song, without hearing the words. I kind of think of it myself as shifting my brain into neutral, I am not letting anything my child says into my heart, I am present, but I am also not trying to listen.
Once the storm passes, and the flight or fight response as turned down a notch it is then time to keep things calm for a while, as re-engage and trying to talk about what happened in that moment will just start up the conflict again. You are not letting your child get away with it, you are using the best possible strategy to move through the tantrum. The best time to help your child reflect on their behaviour is when things have returned to normal, when everyone is calm. That could be much later in the day, or even the next day.
Staying calm is a tool that every parent needs to harness, and while it is challenging, anecdotally when I have seen parents apply it, even when nothing else in the family dynamic has changed, they have reported a difference in everyone’s behaviour. If you have any tips for staying calm, feel free to comment.