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No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out-Of-Control Behavior

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It could happen anywhere: at the grocery store, at a restaurant, at school, or at home. Meltdowns are stressful for both child and adult, but Dr. Baker can help!

Author of the award-winning Social Skills Picture Book series, Dr. Jed Baker offers parents and teachers strategies for preventing and managing meltdowns. Over twenty years of experience working with children on the autism spectrum combined with his personal experiences raising his own children have yielded time-tested strategies—and results! Dr. Baker offers an easy-to-follow, four-step model that will improve your everyday relationships with the children in your life, including managing your own emotions by adjusting your expectations, learning strategies to calm a meltdown in the moment, understanding why a meltdown occurs, and creating plans to prevent future meltdowns.

Helpful chapters include:: Meltdowns: When rewards and punishments are not enough
What are meltdowns made of?
Accepting and appreciating our children
De-escalating a meltdown
Understanding why repeat problems occur
Creating a prevention plan
And more!

ISBN-13: 9781932565621

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Future Horizons Inc.

Publication Date: 04-01-2008

Pages: 150

Product Dimensions: 5.99(w) x 9.04(h) x 0.41(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Jed Baker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over 12 years experience leading therapeutic groups with children, adults and families. He is a behavioral consultant for several New Jersey school systems, providing social skills training for students with pervasive developmental disorders and learning disabilities. In addition, he writes, lectures, and provides training throughout the Northeast on social skills training for individuals with Asperger Syndrome and related pervasive developmental disorders.

Read an Excerpt


MELTDOWNS: When Rewards and Punishments are Not Enough

What is a Meltdown?

The family of a first-grader came to see me with concerns about their son. He had a challenging Kindergarten year. The school described him as a bright young boy with unpredictable outbursts. I met with his mother alone to get the background information on him. She explained how kind he was, yet misunderstood by those at school. The next week Mom brought him in to see me.

He entered the waiting room with a Game Boy in hand. I said with a cheerful tone, "Hi Chris, it's so good to meet you." He would not look up at me or respond, just continued with his Game Boy. I knew from his history that he could hear me. I tried to win him over, "Chris, what's that? A Game Boy? Can I see?" No response again. I said, "Can we talk for just a moment, you can bring your Game Boy in with you." No response.

I turned to Mom and asked what she usually does when this happens. She said, out loud, that she might take the Game Boy away. I said, trying to be positive, "Wait, don't do that. Chris, why don't you just bring the Game Boy in with you." He then put his fingers in his ears as I spoke and said, "Na, na, na, na," ignoring me.

I felt pretty powerless, much as I had the night before with my own kids when they ignored my efforts to get them to bed. This did not feel good. I began to wonder if it might be easier to work with adults, and let the rest of my staff work with the younger kids. Nevertheless, I tried one more thing, I took off my shoe, put a pencil up my nose and spoke into the shoe, "Chris, hello Chris, are you there?" I saw him smile. Without a word he followed me into my office.

I knew we were not home free yet, given our shaky start. I decided to quickly implement a little reward program to get him in a good mood. Mom told me he loved chocolate so I told him, "Every time you talk with me I am going to give you one of these fake dollars, and when you get five of them, you can have any of the chocolates in my bag over there." I began by asking him non-threatening questions like what his Dad's name was, his brothers', etc. Within a minute he earned five of the fake dollars. I said, "Look how many you have: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Go ahead — you can have any of the chocolates you like." At this point he squinted his eyes with an angry look, crawled under my desk, kicked over my chair, and began to knock his elbow into the drywall of my office hard enough to put a hole through it. He would not respond to me as he began to destroy my office.

This was a full-blown meltdown, the same kind seen in school as he began first grade. Did this young boy just need some firmer discipline? Was this a remnant of lack of discipline at home or in school? It seemed from the history that both school and home had offered rewards and doled out punishments to this boy fairly consistently. His mother's threats of more punishment after the session certainly had not calmed him down. A series of embarrassing hula dances I performed was enough to get him to laugh once more and calm down, yet the question remained: why did this happen, and would it happen again?

Mom clued me in to what might have happened. He was struggling in school with adding numbers and, as much as I thought I was rewarding him when I said, "look how many dollars you have," he thought, "This guy is doing math," prompting him to try to fight or flee from this threat.

These challenging moments are exhausting for all. They may involve any upsetting behaviors that are hard to control, such as kicking and screaming, refusing to listen, physical aggression, or bad language.

From my point of view:

"Meltdowns" are escalating negative emotional reactions.

The Usual Parenting Advice: Start with Consistent Rules and Consequences

Most good parenting books tell us that we need to create rules and be consistent in enforcing them. According to this straightforward advice, we need to control our own tempers and calmly follow through with the rules that we ourselves set if we want our children to behave. Not only is it difficult to stay calm in the face of meltdowns, but following through with rules and consequences is not always enough, as we will soon examine. However, creating rules and consequences is an important starting point, and the advice bears repeating here.

Most of us understand that kids need structure and discipline to help them learn and behave. We set rules so they know what is expected. We have consequences, both rewards and punishments, to make clear the importance of following those rules. Without rules and consequences, our lives would be chaotic.

One family I worked with complained about the difficulty they had getting their two kids to eat dinner with them at the dinner table. After some discussion, they acknowledged that their rules about eating dinner had been unclear and inconsistent for some time. If the husband and wife were tired after working late, they sometimes gave in and let the kids eat in front of the TV. Then, when they wanted everyone to eat together, it became a battle to get them to the table. With some coaxing, they agreed to make eating together at the table a consistent rule. The positive consequence of following the rule was some TV time later. If the kids violated the rule, there was no TV later. This consistency brought order to their home after two days, during which the children tested the new rule. A triumph for good old structure and discipline.

The Limits of Discipline, When Rewards and Punishments No Longer Work

Sometimes, when our rules are not being followed, we intensify our disciplinary efforts by handing out still more consequences. Let's look again at Chris, our first grader. He refused to do his work in class one day. The teacher told him he could not go to recess unless he did his work. He got angry and threw over his chair. She then said he must go to the principal's office and he responded by stating he hated her. The principal reprimanded him for his behaviors and said he would not be allowed to go to recess for two days. Chris became so upset, he tried to leave the school building. As a result, he was suspended. When he returned to school, he once again began to refuse to do his work and the cycle started over.

As another example, a seven-year-old child I worked with had trouble sitting at the table throughout dinner and would frequently get up, sometimes play with his food and, on occasion, throw food. His parents told him that following the rules to stay seated and eat his food would result in a favored dessert and TV time, but even after losing TV and dessert, the upsetting behavior would continue. Throwing food would result in being sent to time out. Upon returning from time out, the pattern would begin again, and then back to time out he would go for a longer time. When he did it a third time, his parents would take one of his favored toys. None of this seemed to alter his behavior. It certainly added stress to the family's life and left his parents questioning each other's discipline styles.

This kind of power struggle and escalation in discipline is fine if it leads to a positive change in behavior. But when it does not, it serves no purpose to continue in the same vein. All too often I hear adults in these situations say that the child is just spoiled, or that he or she just needs a firm hand.

When consistent rewards and punishments are not working, it is time to try a new strategy.

But Aren't Meltdowns Just Manipulative Behavior?

Some people distinguish between meltdowns and tantrums, suggesting meltdowns are always out of control while tantrums may be manipulative behaviors that are intentional. Returning to the example of Chris, who melted down in my office and at school, we might wonder whether his behavior was within his control. Did he plan to "act out" with me so that he would not have to go to therapy? Did he put on purposeful tantrums in school to get sent out of class because he did not want to do the work, or were these emotional reactions that overcame him when frustrated?

The issue of intent is often seen as crucial when considering whether or not to punish someone. If we think it's a manipulative act, we feel more confident following through with the enforcement of the rule. "You will do your work or lose recess!" If on the other hand we think the behavior is an uncontrollable emotional reaction, we might be more likely to give in: "Okay, let's take a break from work right now." Holding firm to rules or giving in are not our only choices. The third choice is to understand the problem so that we can create a plan to prevent it from happening. For Chris, that plan may involve altering the work so that he does not need to avoid it.

When the challenging behaviors continue despite consistently enforcing rules, it does not matter anymore whether the behavior was intentional. We need to understand how to alter the triggers to those behaviors and/or teach better ways to cope with those triggers.

That is what this book is about. When traditional discipline (using rewards and punishments) has fallen short, you need to know what to do. Chances are, if you are reading this book, it is because some challenging behaviors continue to happen despite your efforts. This book gives you the tools to: (1) Accept and appreciate your children, even when they are driving you crazy, (2) Calm a meltdown in the moment, and (3) Develop strategies to prevent future meltdowns.

Can We Really Expect No More Meltdowns?

If we could control the world, we could guarantee no more meltdowns. No longer would kids be asked to do things that are beyond their capacity. No longer would they have to wait too long for what they want. No longer would they be overwhelmed by noise or other over-stimulating events. We could make sure we had adequate time to prepare for challenging situations. We could control germs and sleep so that there would be no more illness or overtiredness, and ensure that our kids would be in the best possible shape to deal with the stresses of the day. Since we cannot control everything, we will have meltdowns. However, with understanding about what causes a meltdown, we can have fewer and fewer of these moments and reduce the stress in our own lives. The following pages outline a four-step model for managing and preventing meltdowns and other behavioral outbursts. The model is based on research into the causes of such outbursts and evidence-based techniques to reduce such challenging moments.

An Overview of the Four-Step Model

Step 1: Accepting and appreciating your child

Two parents can react in the same way to a child's behavior, but one parent may be more likely to get the child to behave than the other because of their recent positive relationship. Many times in a school system, I have had administrators say to me that they cannot discipline certain children and must leave it up to another staff member whom the child trusts.

Maintaining a positive relationship is very much about managing our expectations and perceptions of our child. We must appreciate who the child is rather than try to force him to meet an unrealistic expectation. For example, a parent recently reported giving her one-year-old baby a "time out" because she was rocking too much in her chair and babbling too loudly. This is what one-year-olds do; trying to get a one-year-old to be perfectly quiet and not move is not a realistic expectation. Efforts to enforce rules that are not appropriate to your child can break down the relationship between child and adult and create more stress. When children feel accepted and appreciated by us, they are more likely to listen to us.

Chapter 3 describes the following key ways we manage our expectations to maintain a healthy relationship with our children:

1. First, we must be able to control our own temper. This is easier when we do not see the child's behavior as a threat to our own competence, but rather as a function of the child's current inability to cope with frustration.

2. Second, to reduce the child's frustration, we must create an atmosphere in which the child feels competent. If the child always feels criticized, he or she will begin to tune us out in an effort to protect self-esteem. Ample praise and setting up activities in which they can succeed help to build a sense of competence and trust in the adult caregiver.

3. Finally, we must avoid constant power struggles. When children fail to follow a particular rule consistently, it may be time to change the demand rather than force them to comply. All children are different, thus the exact same expectations may not apply to all children.

Step 2: De-escalating a Meltdown

Because the world is unpredictable, we will not be able to plan for everything and there will be moments when our children melt down. We might take our kids to a toy store to get their friend a birthday present. We did not think to prepare them for the fact that we would not be buying them a present, too. Then our children see something they want and are told they cannot have it. Now comes the screaming and tantrum in public. People are staring and we feel judged and embarrassed, which makes us even more irritated, so we raise our voices at our kids — which escalates the situation even further. Now we have a real scene. We could just walk out, dragging our kids behind us. But is there a less stressful way to handle this?

What tools do we have to de-escalate this kind of situation? How can we manage an unexpected emotional meltdown? In Chapter 4, we will look at the art of distraction to de-escalate a meltdown that we were unable to prevent. Although this is a crucial crisis management skill, we do not want to rely on it too often. It would be much more productive to learn how to anticipate the situations that can trigger meltdowns and develop a plan to prevent them from happening. That is what Step 3 is all about.

Step 3: Understanding Why a Meltdown Keeps Occurring

When a child continues to have meltdowns, we must begin to reflect on why this is happening. We must assess if there is something predictable about the challenging behavior, if certain types of events tend to trigger them, and if the ways that others react enable the problem. Understanding why a meltdown occurs is key to developing plans to prevent them. Once we see a pattern emerging, and can predict meltdowns, we can begin to develop strategies to prevent them.

Chapter 5 lays out a method for assessing why we keep having the same meltdowns in certain situations. This process has an official name in the behavioral literature: Functional Behavioral Assessment.

Step 4: Creating Plans to Prevent Meltdowns

Once we understand why a meltdown occurs in a particular situation, we can create a plan to prevent it. Chapter 6 describes the components of a good prevention plan, which typically involves four areas of intervention:

* Changes to the situations that trigger meltdowns.

* Teaching skills to deal with the triggering situations.

* Using rewards or losses.

* Biologically based strategies.



Meltdowns are not abnormal behaviors. At a certain age, everyone has meltdowns. Self-control is something that develops with age, such that toddlers and preschoolers lacking in self-control are expected to have some meltdowns. Yet there are characteristics that make certain individuals more likely to melt down than their peers.

Meltdowns as the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

When we feel extremely threatened, we are all prone to react automatically with an intense emotional response to fight, flee, or freeze as if our life depended on it. This survival mode response in many ways fits the definition of a meltdown. Daniel Goleman, in his book titled Emotional Intelligence, refers to these moments as a state of being "hijacked by emotions" (Goleman, 1995). It is as if the emotion center has taken over the rest of the brain so that we don't have easy access to our reasoning ability.

Some people refer to this as the "crocodile" or "reptilian" brain taking over. The human brain has both the remnants of the old reptilian brain (particularly the limbic system), which controls the "fight-or-flight response" and the newer, human part of our brain called the neo-cortex, which is associated with planning and reasoning ability. When threatened, our reptilian brain may cause us to flee, fight, or freeze without the cerebral cortex intervening (i.e., without our ability to reason or think about what we are doing). This quick, non-thinking response certainly has survival value, but in a world where perceived threats may not always be life threatening, the fight, flight, or freeze response can lead to unnecessary meltdowns, causing us to automatically become upset when a cool mind might have been more effective.

Goleman (1995) points to the difficulties of trying to reason with someone during an emotional hijacking, and describes how distraction can shift the individual's attention away from the triggering event until she is calm. I will return to the issue of distraction in Chapter 4: Deescalating a meltdown.


Excerpted from "No More Meltdowns"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Jed Baker.
Excerpted by permission of Future Horizons, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Jed Baker, in this excellent book, gives us the tools to deal with and prevent out-of-control behavior. Wisely, he leads us grown-ups to understand how to change our own behavior in order to help our children change theirs." Carol Stock Kranowitz "Author of best-seller The Out-of-Sync Child"

Table of Contents




Chapter 1: Meltdowns: When rewards and punishments are not enough

  • What is a meltdown?
  • The usual parenting advice: start with rules and consequences
  • The limits of discipline: when rewards and punishments no longer work
  • But aren’t meltdowns just manipulative behavior?
  • Can we really expect no more meltdowns?
  • An overview of the four-step model for reducing meltdowns

Chapter 2: What are meltdowns made of?

  • Fight, flight or freeze response
  • Temperament
  • Difficulties with abstract thinking and perspective taking
  • Inflexibility
  • An explosive combination


Chapter 3: Accepting and appreciating our children

  • Controlling our own frustration
  • Building competence
  • Avoiding learned helplessness
  • The 80/20 rule
  • Anticipating frustration as part of learning
  • When to avoid power struggles

Chapter 4: De-escalating a meltdown

  • How to de-escalate a meltdown
  • Distractions
  • When too much distraction can make things worse
  • Helping children find their own distractions and calming strategies
  • Steps for creating self-calming strategies

Chapter 5: Understanding why repeat problems occur

Understanding the triggers

  • The ABCs of behavior: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence
  • Getting the ABCs: Interviews and observations
  • Seeing the pattern

Chapter 6: Creating a prevention plan

  • The components of a good prevention plan
  • A prevention plan for Kevin
  • The four types of meltdown situations
  • Plans for the Four Types of Meltdown Situations

Chapter 7: Demands

  • Do your schoolwork
  • Try it, it’s delicious
  • Hurry up, the bus is coming
  • Clean up
  • Let’s go to the party

Chapter 8: Waiting

  • Just wait
  • You can’t always get what you want
  • Okay, time to stop playing

Chapter 9: Threats to self-image

  • Winning isn’t everything
  • It’s okay to make mistakes
  • But names will never hurt you

Chapter 10: Unmet wishes for attention

  • I can’t play with you now
  • Don’t be jealous
  • Time to go to bed

Chapter 11: Closing thoughts: Finding your own way

  • Prevention plan form