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Kicking & Screaming

Imagine receiving the following phone call at work: your neighbor has contacted the police to complain that YOUR child — the one who is currently kicking and screaming in her backyard — is disturbing the peace. For Dallas mom Blair Kaiser, it was just another challenging day parenting her 11-year-old son Brayden.

Brayden was born with congenital cataracts, which were removed when he was two months old. At one, he was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf. He received a cochlear implant six months later to restore his hearing. Then, when Brayden turned four, he was diagnosed with autism. At nine, he developed epilepsy and exhibited severe cognitive delays. Today, Brayden is still nonverbal and is also incontinent. He is nearly five feet tall and during a tantrum, he self-harms — banging his head on the ground so violently that he recently broke the internal component of his cochlear implant.

The day the police were called, Brayden wanted to play in the neighbor’s backyard; but, the attendant who picks him up from school tried to stop him.

“The next thing she knew, he’d thrown himself on the ground in their yard and started screaming,” recalls Kaiser. “Because his implant is broken, he can’t hear anyone that tries to calm him down. The community as a whole isn’t used to experiencing those kinds of meltdowns, and they have no idea how severe they can be.”

Although every parent deals with tantrums, for parents like Kaiser, these episodes can be incredibly difficult to manage. Realizing your child will likely never outgrow them can also lead to feelings of helplessness and despair, notes Chris Ostertag, a therapist at Family Tree Counseling in Plano. Yet, most parents wait too long before seeking help.
 
“Usually when parents see a therapist, they’re right at the breaking point or just past it,” notes Ostertag, adding that the first session offers an opportunity for parents to get a huge emotional weight off their chests.

“They can admit to a therapist that they don’t know what to do,” says Ostertag. “It’s hard for parents to feel like failures; that’s part of the reason they wait so long to get help. It’s important to take all the struggle, pain and frustration and release it.”

Avoiding or anticipating a tantrum before it becomes a full-fledged fiasco by employing specific strategies can significantly change the outcome, adds Ostertag. For example, Ostertag teaches parents to say something just once, followed by a physical prompt.

“My client said her daughter wouldn’t respond to her name. She’d keep repeating it, so her daughter knew she didn’t have to respond right away,” explains Ostertag. “Say it once, and if she doesn’t come, go to her and turn her around to face you. Give your child tools so he or she understands how to calm down, such as doing five belly breaths, and show them how to do this before they get to that point of no return.”

What if your child skips the deep-breath step and heads straight into meltdown mode?

“In the heat of the moment, make sure you’re able to follow through with what words you use,” says Ostertag. “Nine times out of 10, parents just want to get this tantrum over with fast; they don’t want to cause a scene. If Johnny’s having a meltdown in a grocery store because he wants candy and you say, ‘We’re not leaving here until you stop crying,’ you’ve just set yourself up to perhaps spend two and a half hours there. Instead, try, ‘You seem really upset right now; do you need a break? Let’s go this way.’”

At home, if you’ve asked your child to put on her shoes but she won’t, state that it’s time to leave and offer to help her, suggests Ostertag.

Brayden gets speech and occupational therapy, and Kaiser is especially optimistic that newly added Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy will help ease her son’s outbursts.

ABA is a type of behavior modification therapy that has been successfully used with autistic children since the 1960s. It uses techniques such as positive reinforcement to reward good behaviors while redirecting unwanted ones. ABA-certified therapists work with parents to improve communication, social skills, academics and adaptive living skills.

“Three therapists come to our house three times a week; they have a massive amount of ideas that we’ve put in place, and it’s starting to work,” reports Kaiser, who now uses a picture schedule and sets timers so Brayden can anticipate what’s going to happen next.

“If we’re going to leave the house, he’ll get a picture of my car and a set of keys,” she explains. “When it’s dinnertime, I hand him a picture of his place at the table, along with the placemat, fork and napkin. As long as I have things for him to do, he’s fine.”

After dinner, Kaiser sets up sensory stations with different smells and textures for Brayden to explore.

“It’s very calming for Brayden,” says Kaiser. “He also jumps on a small trampoline to develop his gross motor skills.”
 
Ostertag notes that parents eager to ease their child’s tantrums need to focus on baby steps.  
 
“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Yes, it’s difficult to think past tomorrow, let alone five or ten years from now, but let’s focus on doing one thing. Then do a second thing,” she says. “Also, do one thing purposely for yourself every day: go for a walk, read a book, take a bath, close your eyes for 15 minutes. You have to take care of yourself, because you’re not going to be any good to your kid unless you’re good to yourself.”

Published April 2014