Expecting parents flinch at the idea of a temper tantrum, new parents stumble through ways to deal with them, and experienced parents know a few ways to get their child to quiet down.
Here’s the reality: every child will throw a tantrum at some point, whether they have an autism diagnosis or not. But for children with autism, tantrums can be more frequent, distressing, and difficult to quell. However, it is in no way impossible; you’ll just need to be a little more patient.
Keep reading to learn some of our recommended behavioral strategies for autism tantrums. If you want to know more about why your child might be having tantrums, or if you want to find out more about autism in general, visit Therapeutic Pathways’ Resources page.
Behavioral Strategies for Tantrums
You may have to try out a few of the following techniques in different situations before you find one that works for your child. In fact, you’ll probably need to keep several in your back pocket. Temper tantrums can have different triggers, and the rate at which your child is developing can also affect how quickly they’ll learn skills like impulse control and communication.
Recognize the purpose or motivation behind the tantrum.
A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied something they want. That could be anything: choosing a TV show, picking out a candy bar at the store, or deciding what shirt they want to wear.
Because young children haven’t yet developed the skills necessary to appropriately assert their independence and desires, they might express their frustration by kicking, screaming, hitting, or other “acting out” behaviors.
That’s the general explanation for why temper tantrums occur, but the first step in taming a tantrum is to understand the motivation behind the behavior. When you are able to identify the “why” of your child’s behavior, you’ll respond more appropriately, not giving in to their behavior while reinforcing positive behaviors.
Every tantrum is different, and your child could be acting out for any number of reasons. Due to their young age and emerging language skills, however, your child’s behavior can be understood pretty quickly.
Here are some of the most common motivations behind temper tantrums:
- To get attention
- To get what they want or need
- Denial of what they want or need
- Delayed access to what they want or need
Remember, once you identify why your child is throwing a tantrum, you can respond to the behavior more appropriately. Don’t give in to their behavior, but do recognize their needs. For example:
Michael wants to watch SpongeBob, but his sister got to the remote first and put on Phineas and Ferb. Now Michael is kicking, crying, and yelling – the way he is expressing his frustration in the situation. The adult could say “Michael, I see that you’re frustrated because you didn’t get to put on your show. When you’ve calmed down, we’ll talk about it.”
The adult can then walk away, allowing Michael time to calm down. After he’s calm, the adult can give him permission to watch SpongeBob, but only after the episode of Phineas and Ferb is over.
Reinforce positive behavior.
Children don’t always respond poorly in situations where they feel frustrated. In fact, many times children do the right thing and act appropriately when they’re denied something or not receiving as much attention as they’d like.
It’s just as important to recognize and reinforce positive behavior as it is to recognize and avert negative behavior. That’s true for at least two reasons:
- You’ll teach your child which behaviors are appropriate and desirable, setting them up for success at school, at home, and everywhere else.
- Children love praise!
When you notice your child responding positively to a situation in which they could have or otherwise would have thrown a tantrum (another child taking their toy on the playground, their sister changing the channel on TV), you can give them praise or a reward for their great behavior.
You can give them a hug, a high-five, or say an encouraging statement like “Good job!” or “Way to go!” If you think a reward is more appropriate, you can give them a visual, tangible token (a gold star sticker), a treat, or permission to do their favorite activity or play their favorite game for a little longer than usual.
When you call attention to what your child is doing right, you’re helping them understand and want to respond positively to frustrating or difficult situations in the future.
Continue working on or developing communication skills.
Most temper tantrums occur because a child is unable to express their strong emotions through words. You can preemptively minimize the risk of a temper tantrum by helping your child practice ways to communicate to you and others about how they are feeling.
If your child is able to communicate to you that something is bothering them or making them uncomfortable, you’ll be able to take steps to remove them from the situation or environment, which will likely prevent an impending temper tantrum. Here are some ways you can encourage communication:
- Practice asking for things appropriately, either verbally or using a visual or text-based system (picture cards, a small whiteboard, etc.).
- Be as clear as possible about what you expect behaviorally of your child. Don’t say something like, “You need to behave at dinner.” That’s too general and confusing a statement for a child to fully understand and follow. Instead, say something like “You need to help set the table, sit down when we’re ready to eat, and keep your hands to yourself.”
- Keep a few items in your bag or car that can help mitigate sensory overload or sensory triggers, common causes of tantrums in children with autism. For example, if your child is scared by all the noise in the grocery store, consider keeping a pair of noise-canceling headphones in your car that you can easily grab before entering the store.
Behavioral Strategies for Children With Autism
The tips discussed in this blog are only a few of the strategies you can use to encourage positive behavior and avert negative behavior in children with autism. For more tips and ideas, please visit Therapeutic Pathways’ Family Resource Center. We have more blogs, FAQs, and expert-led resources available for your use.