What Should I Do When My Explosive Child Loses Control?
It’s the very worst part of my motherhood. When my explosive child loses control – what do I do?
I heard the sound of glass breaking before I could get to his room.
I ran in, and a book flew past my head and hit the wall behind me.
My son, crying, out of breath, and full of rage, had completely lost control.
He was swinging his arms wildly and pacing.
He was muttering, “There’s nothing to do. There’s no way I can fix this. I just want to die.”
The room looked like something on a TV show.
Papers and books, torn and scattered about, were everywhere.
The window was shattered.
For a moment I hesitated. “It’s like stepping into a war zone with landmines,” I thought.
I took a deep breath and moved towards him.
My son had completely lost control.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. (If you are parenting an explosive child, you know better.)
Unfortunately, both of my boys have struggled and continue to struggle with out-of-control, explosive behavior.
In the moment, its terrifying.
The mix of anger, fear, and desperation I feel mid-meltdown is not something I would wish on any parent.
The mix of anger, fear, and desperation my child feels mid-meltdown is not something I would wish on any child.
Today, I want to share what works for me and for my child, once he has already lost control.
Please know, I am not an expert. I am just a mom, trying to figure out the best way to help my children recover and thrive.
What Should I Do When My Explosive Child Loses Control?
De-escalating a meltdown is not an easy task – for me or for my child.
It is physically and emotionally draining.
It’s often traumatic.
I am not making these recommendations flippantly, nor with the misconception that this is somehow easy.
In fact, helping my children calm down once they are out-of-control is one of the most difficult things I do as a parent.
It’s difficult, but it has proven to be worth it.
What To Do, What Not To Do, and How To Help
Here are the steps I take when my child loses control.
Calm Myself First
If I could recommend only one strategy for helping a child that has lost control, this would be it.
The only way I can be effective in helping my son when he is out of control is by showing him that I am in control. This communicates to him that no matter what, it’s going to be OK.
In the past, as soon as I sensed my child escalating, I would panic.
As he yelled, I yelled.
When he cried, I began crying.
As he grew increasingly angry, I fumed.
My experience has been, over and over again, that more out of control I feel, the more out of control my son becomes.
Keeping ourselves calm is not an easy step to take, but it is essential.
When it’s clear that my son is beginning to lose control, I take a few deep breaths and whisper a quick prayer. (Something like, “ Oh God, help me!” Nothing too deep.)
No matter how escalated he becomes…
No matter what is broken….
No matter how I much I want to cry and scream myself…
I purpose to stay calm.
I don’t allow myself to think about what happens when he is an adult and could get arrested for this type of behavior.
I don’t freak myself out with thoughts like “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.”
I don’t worry about what my husband will say when he gets home and sees the iPad broken (again).
I just focus on my child and what he needs next.
(The honest truth is, in the moment, I pretend like I am a nurse or therapist, and not my son’s mom. It’s easier for me to approach my son’s behavior from a more clinical perspective.)
Once I feel some semblance of being in control of my own emotions, I move in to help my son with his.
Close Proximity and Low Voice
No matter how escalated my son is, I find what works best mid-meltdown is to stay close and use a low, even voice.
I don’t touch him or try to restrain him.
I don’t speak loudly to be heard over his screams.
I simply stay very close and speak to him in a low, calm, even tone.
If he is starting to inflict pain on himself or me, or is damaging the furniture, walls or windows, I take a defensive pose – again staying close and using a low, calm voice.
In this defensive pose, I pick up either a couch cushion or large stuffed animal. (Incidentally, my son LOVES the biggest, craziest stuffed animals to the point that we aren’t sure where to store all of them. The good news is, they are perfect for this type of incident.) I position myself between him and whatever it is that he is trying to harm. If it’s the wall, I place the cushion between his foot and the wall. If he is trying to punch or scratch me, I hold the cushion up to defend myself. If he is trying to hurt himself, I place something soft between him and his arm or foot.
Again, any move I make, I do so with a calm demeanor, low voice and in close proximity.
Repeat the Priorities (but nothing else)
I have found that what I say is just as important as how I say it.
What works best is repeating the same few priorities and encouragement, over and over again.
“I am here with you. I want to help you.”
“I will not let you hurt yourself.”
“We do not hurt other people.”
“We do not damage property.”
“You can do this. I know it’s hard. I want to help you.”
There have been times where I have repeated these statements over and over again, almost melodically, for more than an hour. I find they are much more effective than when I said things like, “You can’t do that!” “No!” and “You have to stop.”
This took a while for me to get used to. I used to practice what I was going to say ahead of time so that in the moment, I would be prepared.
Assist In The Wind Down With Distraction
No matter how serious the meltdown, there will come a moment when you can physically see and emotionally sense that your child is beginning to calm down.
These are critical moments.
In my experience, one of two things is going to happen next.
My child will either relax and move on, or completely escalate and lose it all over again.
In an attempt to help him do the former, I change my tactics a bit when I see that he is slightly calmer. At this point, I try to distract him.
In the same low voice –
“Let’s sit down together and watch that video with the snakes.”
“Look at our doggie. Isn’t she cute? She loves you so much.”
“Do you know that we are having pizza tonight for dinner?”
Once my child is completely, obviously calm and past the explosive episode, I have found it is essential that we get our day back on track (if I want to avoid any further meltdowns).
This one is tough for me because once my child is calm, I feel exhausted, drained, and ready to go get under the covers for the next ten years or so.
But my child craves consistency. It helps him feel more controlled.
Changing the routine because of a meltdown does not work well for us. Once everyone is calm and settled, I have found it to be imperative that we get back to our normal routine for the day (no Spongebob for four hours so that Mommy can freak out alone in the other room).
The good news is, it helps me feel more in control too.
If you have witnessed this type of behavior, you know it to be true, but I feel the need to stress this anyway – No one suffers more from explosive behavior than the child himself. No one is more desperate, more confused, or more terrified than a child who has completely lost control of his own ability to function.
Helping our children mid-meltdown is so, so hard.
And it is essential to their overall well-being and growth.
In the moment, these are the ways I have found to help. But decreasing the overall number of explosive episodes requires more than just in the moment care.
I want to encourage you to also consider the other elements of this series. Understanding why our children are melting down and creating a calmer environment for our children are just as important to our overall success.
More than anything else, please hear me when I say, You Can Do This.
You are not alone.
Your child is not the only one.
There is nothing to be ashamed of.
Shame has no place in loving and caring for our children as they experience some of the toughest moments of their young lives.
It takes time, but it is possible to help our explosive children heal and live well.
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Shawna Wingert is a special education teacher turned educational consultant, and mom of two brilliant boys who have learning differences and special needs.
Shawna has also written four books: Everyday Autism, Special Education at Home, Parenting Chaos, and Homeschooling Your Child With Special Needs. A passionate advocate for individualized education, Shawna is frequently featured on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers and The Mighty. She can also be found supporting parents online at her own site, DifferentByDesignLearning.com.