Being a parent is never easy. Add in the complexities of adoption, trauma, and special needs, and you’re likely to discover that tactics like time outs and star charts are useless at best. What does that leave you with? Amanda Preston’s surprising suggestions may be just the tricks you need.
Rethinking bad behaviour
You’re standing in your kitchen washing dishes when suddenly your 10-year-old child walks in. He asks if he can have an ice cream sandwich. Dinner is in 5 minutes so you calmly let him know not right now, but after dinner.
Unfortunately, this tried and true method of delaying the “yes” doesn’t work and your child begins to melt down. I’m not talking your average meltdown. Instead he immediately starts to scream at the top of his lungs, flings a glass off the counter, and flips the dining room chairs while swearing at you.
If you’re an adoptive parent of a special needs child, then you’re likely nodding your head. We’ve all been there and unfortunately I know many of us are there every single day, sometimes multiple times a day.
I’m sure that, like me, you’ve tried everything: time ins, time outs, behaviour charts, positive parenting, choices, redirection, 1-2-3 Magic. I’ve read books on strong-willed children, defiant children, and more. While some tricks work some of the time, I think it’s always helpful to have more tools in the tool belt. So why not try rewarding their behaviour instead?
Before you turn away and think I am a complete nut, hang on a bit longer and keep reading. I promise, it won’t be as bad as you’re thinking.
I recently went to the best conference for adoptive and foster parents I have ever been to: Refresh, in Seattle. I learned a ton of hands-on skills for dealing with the special needs of children with brain-based disorders and a history of trauma. These tools focus on regulating the brain when a child is approaching or in the midst of a meltdown.
FASD, ADHD, trauma, and many other special needs impact the child’s ability to regulate themselves. Often, children with these challenges misbehave because they can’t engage their rational brain when they’re upset, not because they want to act out. When you use these tools, you’re not actually rewarding bad behaviour. You’re navigating challenging brain-based behaviour.
This tool is great to de-escalate kids who are already in full meltdown mode, and it’s helpful for meltdown prevention in high-risk situations like the grocery store or another child’s birthday party. It’s also a tool that will really make you feel like you’re rewarding your child’s behaviour.
You’re going to give your child a lollipop. Yes, you heard me correctly. Your child is throwing toys across the room, swearing at you, and screaming at the top of their lungs? You’re going to walk over, hand them a lollipop, and wait. Your child needs help accessing their rational brain, and the lollipop is going to help.
The sucking is what creates the magic with this tool. Sucking on the lollipop causes the child’s heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels to decrease. The sugar helps too. The reason a lollipop works so well versus a non-food item, such as a soother or chewy toy, is the sudden burst of sweet, delicious flavor. You likely won’t convince your 10-year-old to suck on a soother when they’re in the middle of a meltdown. It’s not going to take much to convince them to use a lollipop!
Don’t get me wrong. Handing your melting-down child a lollipop will feel wrong. It will. But you’re not rewarding their behaviour. You’re simply helping them calm down in a moment of crisis. Your child can’t access the area of the brain that would help them calm down. You must be their brain for them. By handing them a lollipop, that’s what you’re doing.
I don’t recommend the lollipop trick for every child, but if you know your child suffers from a brain disorder or trauma, try it. I know it feels like you’re going against everything you know as a parent, but I promise, it will help. We have to choose our battles when parenting kids with trauma or special needs. As long as your child brushes their teeth, eats other healthy foods throughout the day, and doesn’t have a medical condition that prevents them from having sugar, it will be okay. Ensuring everyone in the house is safe and calm is far more important than a bit of extra sugar.
Similar to the lollipop tool, gum is excellent for a child who needs to calm down right away before things get out of hand. Start by handing the child several pieces of bubble gum. Yes, I said several pieces. Chewing a very large mouthful of gum forces the child’s jaw muscles to work hard, which is where the magic comes in.
I know what you’re thinking if you’re anything like me: “We don’t allow gum in this house.” Yes. I’m right there with you! Gum is my nemesis. I hate finding it in my carpet, in my bed sheets, on my furniture, and in other unique places. In this situation, though, you’re going to have your child sit right beside you and chew the giant wad of gum for a few minutes. Once they have calmed down you can have them to spit it out, and give them a single piece of gum to continue chewing (and calming down).
Is it risky having gum in the house? Oh my word, yes. I cringe just thinking about it. But is it so incredibly worth it to calm down a child who is extremely escalated? Yes!
Here comes the hardest-to-swallow tool of them all. Use it when you feel you need it, and don’t feel bad about it.
If your child is in the middle of a rage and things are quickly spiraling out of control, then offer your child 15 minutes on their tablet or smartphone. I know, I know. It goes against everything you believe. Screen time during a meltdown? I must be kidding. Nope! This tool is used to calm down a child so they can move past the meltdown. Does this mean you forget about what happened? No. But you’re not going to succeed at teaching your child anything while they are in the middle of a meltdown.
Allow the child 15 minutes of screen time to help them settle down. Calmly tell them when their time is up. Your child may do best with a 5-minute warning that time is almost up, or they may just want to be left alone until their screen time is over. Only you know what will work best for your child. Once the time is up and your child has calmed down, you can attempt a “redo.” The redo is a tool I learned through the Empowered to Connect program. You can read the book The Connected Child by Karyn Purvis to learn more.
More quick and easy “rewards”
- Drinking through a straw
- Jumping on a mini trampoline
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing a pinwheel
- The Mustache (place finger on upper lip so it looks like a mustache—this pushes on a pressure point)
None of us entered parenthood intending to give our children lollipops, bubble gum, and screen time when they misbehave. Parenting a child with special needs or a history of trauma really does require a different type of parenting. We have to think outside the box to ensure our children succeed. Don’t worry if it feels wrong at first. As long as you remember your child is not intentionally acting out, and view their meltdowns as times when they need help, everything will become a bit easier. Once meltdowns go from two hours to ten minutes, you’ll become a believer.
Amanda Preston is an adoptive and foster mom to 8 kids, a social worker, the Executive Director of Home for Every Child Adoption Society, and a blogger at My Lovely Crazy Life (www.mylovelycrazylife.com). She is an advocate for seeing all children with permanent families and is passionate about FASD and other special needs.