5 ways to constructively deal with your kids’ mood swings

Oh, and with a post title like that, can you tell what kind of day we had here? It had its rough spots. But you know, it ended OK. Actually, it ended up pretty good, and that’s saying a lot.

I don’t often mention that Sarah has Asperger’s. She does – and ADHD, and maybe OCD, and definitely SPD, and a whole bunch of other letter-things that, at least outside the public school system, truly don’t mean much 90% of the time. The thing is, during the other 10% of our lives, when we’re in “full Aspie mode,” Chris and I become very aware that we’re not dealing with someone who thinks “like a 12-year-old girl.” We’re dealing with someone – an incredibly special and important someone – who truly cannot process or accept the world around her. She’s in China, and we’re screaming in French. Getting louder ain’t gonna help.

That’s hard to accept, in a lot of ways. We’re still learning how to deal with Asperger’s meltdowns – which you’ve got to kind of see to believe; if you’re an autism-spectrum parent, you totally understand – but these aren’t situations where things like sending Sarah to her room or grounding her are going to have any effect whatsoever. (My amazing virtual friend Karen over at Confessions of an Asperger’s Mom does a wonderful job, through her writing, of trying to help bring an understanding to this. I’d love for you to read this post of hers, which really shows what one of “these days” is like for us.)

Dealing with Asperger's meltdowns

Looking back, I can see how today went off track. And I can see what I did that helped – or didn’t help – get Sarah (and our day as a whole) back on a better course.

It’s not a miracle cure, but here’s what worked. Next time your kids are mid-meltdown…

1. Stay calm.

You are all looking at me through the computer screen like I’m the biggest, most naive idiot on the blogging block, aren’t you? I hear you, saying, “What the (expletive deleted) is this (expletive deleted) lady doing tell me to stay calm? My (expletive deleted) kid just told me she hates me, hates herself, and wants to gouge my (expletive deleted) eyeballs out with a spoon! I’ll show her calm…”

I hear you. I do. I think I probably said all that and more in the past couple of years. But today, I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry. I didn’t go into the kitchen and start slamming the dishes around. I didn’t grab Sarah’s arm and forcibly sit her little rear end down in the chair I wanted her in. I just… talked. Quietly. I can’t say I didn’t get a little weepy myself at a couple points, but not the crazy crying mess that I sometimes turn into when I’m really angry.

You know that your kids know how to push your buttons. They do. When people are very close to you, they also know exactly how to hurt you. Whether it’s your parents, your kids, your spouse… you can’t control what those people say to you. The ONLY thing you can control is your reaction to it. Choose to bring peace to YOUR side of the equation, at least. (The wonderful Shawn over at Awesomely Awake has a great post on choosing peace that I encourage you to check out.)

This is true no matter what your situation, but I find it especially true when you’re talking about kids on the autism spectrum, or with mood-related issues. Some days, I just have to “bring the calm” enough for both of us, because Sarah just can’t get there on her own, but she can catch my vibe almost instinctively.

2. Inventory the basic needs first. 

This sounds silly, but as Sarah and I were going a solid three rounds about talking respectfully, lying, obedience, and all that good stuff, it never occurred to me that she was exhausted. Tired Sarah is never a recipe for awesome behavior, and she admitted at lunch that she was pretty drained. That in itself is incredibly unusual – yet I didn’t pick up on it. So when World War S broke out, starting with the battle cry of “I’m bored and NO ONE EVER GIVES ME ANYTHING TO DO,” some of my first suggestions were things that would take a lot of energy. Not to mention, I just kept giving her more sensory input – the last thing she wants when she’s sleepy. Not bright, Mom.

Later, after things had settled down, we went to our 4-H club meeting. Mid-meeting, while we were electing officers, Sarah pretty vocally tried to hurry up the proceedings to get to snack time, telling everyone she’s hungry. Turning to my husband, I joked, “I do feed the kid,” and he goes, “What did she have for dinner?”

Guess what? I hadn’t fed her dinner. We’d dealt with every issue under the sun, it seemed, but by the time things were copacetic again, I’d just plain forgotten that we hadn’t eaten yet. Good grief.

First things first. Again, this is especially true in our Asperger’s situation, but it applies to everyone. Before you start addressing things like respectful attitudes, get everyone’s simple needs met. You’ll be amazed at how many times “bored” or “cranky” really translate into “hungry” or “tired” or “not feeling well.”

3. Stick to one issue. 

Today’s arguments in our house touched on a good number of topics – boredom, lying, defiance, anger, responsibilities – but there was one central issue, which was Sarah’s tone of voice and verbal disrespect in response to some things I’d said to her. So, yes, part of the problem was that she’d lied to me, but that wasn’t what we were truly “fighting” about. If, when I’d caught her in a lie, she’d basically ‘fessed up – even sulkily – it could’ve ended there.

Instead, I got “FINE – I’M A HUGE LIAR AND I NEVER TELL YOU THE TRUTH AND I’M A HORRIBLE PERSON – ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?” (Confession: I got sarcastic. “Oh, yeah, I’m super happy to be yelled at like that.” That never works, by the way. So don’t do that one.)

Same problem with not working neatly on something she was doing for me. If I’d have realized she was just too tired to work on it effectively (Tip 2), or if she’d told me either nicely or at least not with fire coming out of her mouth that she really wasn’t in a frame of mind to do it, then that would’ve been mildly unpleasant but basically, I’d have dropped it. Instead, I got “ALL YOU CARE ABOUT ANY MORE IS PUNISHING ME AND MAKING ME DO STUPID THINGS.” So in both cases, I actually ignored the earlier issue and dealt with the “problem theme” instead. Do I care about lying? Of course I do. But you can’t win a war on two fronts, as it were.

Again, this works with your spouse, your parents, your kids, your friends. Agree to fight right. Stick to the issue that’s most pressing, and leave other stuff out of it. It doesn’t mean you’ll never go back to it, but don’t pile on right then.

Specifically to the autism spectrum issue here, I think required reading should be How To Stop Confusing Your Asperger’s Child. The most salient point there is the third one. When you’re trying to reason with your kids, especially about behavior issues, it’s natural to try to add more and more explanation when you feel they’re not “getting it.” In an incredibly humbling (to me) statement, though, that article says: “If language is the problem in the first place, adding more language probably isn’t going to help.”

Duh. I need to work more on that, but it’s stuck with me.

4. Focus and refocus

As part of today’s issues, Sarah was just adamant that she was bored, that everything was boring, that there was NO INFORMATION ON DINOSAURS ON THE WHOLE INTERNET, that she has nothing that she ever enjoys doing… you know the drill. That was a tangent I didn’t want to go down, but at the same time, I saw a way to use it constructively: After being (rudely) shut down at everything I suggested she might like to do, I said, “You know what would help? I’d like you to make me a list of 10 things you can do if you’re bored, so that I know what to suggest in the future.”

This does a few things. First, you acknowledge the issue, but you don’t turn it into “the big problem.” So I didn’t get into a “How can you be bored?” debate, but I addressed her feeling of boredom. Then, I refocused it onto what I wanted, which was basically for Sarah to stop thinking “angry thoughts” and think of things that would bring her back into a more peaceful frame of mind. Making a list of things she enjoys is a good way of doing this, without being quite as heavy-handed as “Let’s talk about happy things now,” you know?

I will add: Our first go-round at this list was less than successful in its original intent. It included wonders like “Never talk” and “Go upstairs and be sad.” Again, focus and refocus. That’s where I said, “OK, it’s totally fine for you to get this on paper and get all the anger out. But let’s try to make another list, of NICE and FUN things you like to do if you’re bored.” I didn’t get into some of the issues brought up by her list – not the least of which was what I’m pretty sure was her trying to pass a profanity off as a misspelling – but I acknowledged where we were and where I was hoping to refocus toward.

On “take 2,” I made another change – I asked Sarah to dictate her items to me, and I’d write them down. Again – she’s tired. She doesn’t love writing by hand at any point, so add tired to the mix and it’s kind of a train wreck. So I kind of evolved the system, and she ended up dictating to me a pretty nice list, including things like “Watch the birds,” “Go outside and look for animals” and “Give hugs.”

All this list-making had another purpose, too – when Sarah had something to focus on doing, a task at hand, it gave her time to calm down and let the situation de-escalate. And it worked – by the time the second list was done, she had apologized, hugged me, and found some things to do. She was even excited to get ready to go to 4-H; we gave her the option to skip it, if she wasn’t feeling like it’d be good, but she wanted to go and had a great time.

5. Move on

Don’t hold a grudge. That’s one I struggle with a lot, especially because Sarah’s mood can change on a dime and sometimes she’s all hearts and flowers again while I’m still clenching my fists and biting my tongue. But you know what? It doesn’t help. She truly doesn’t “get” why you’re still mad, especially if she’s apologized, and in our house, holding on to those bad feelings just creates a bad situation all over again.

We got through it. “This, too, shall pass,” and all that. I feel like I ran a marathon, but I’ve had worse.

And Sarah chose to run and was re-elected as historian of her 4-H club – a role for which she won the countywide award last year.

And she gave me a big hug and kiss before bed.

So, yeah, today ended up being a good day.

Read more

If you’re interested in reading more about our life with Asperger’s and SPD, check out this post that shows what sensory processing disorder is like and this post that describes our journey to an autism spectrum diagnosis.

27 thoughts on “5 ways to constructively deal with your kids’ mood swings

  1. Great post. I’m not dealing with a child on the spectrum but a hormonal, tween daughter. And a lot of this was still very pertinent. I often react just like you and I know I need to stop.

  2. love, love love!!! I have an Aspie son who has severe ADHD and everything else. Just a couple of weeks ago, he had gone to school without one of his pills (accidentally!!) and I got a call about lunchtime after he had stood on the table and proclaimed that he was going to bring a gun to school and shoot everyone! Of course, he had a substitute that day and so no one knew how to stop this meltdown before it started and that’s how we got to that point. I got up to the school and by then his teacher was there, too and we both explained that he does this as a way of saying, “Hey, I’m frustrated and no one is paying attention to me!!” Obviously, it worked that day!

    • Oh NOOOOO… I’m sitting here half-laughing, only because I feel like I can see that, see how it got to that point, see your face when you got the call from the school, and most of all I can see what your son must have felt like, more and more and more frustrated and just wanting to be heard. I have soooo been there. Thank you so much for sharing, it just helps to know we’re not alone! Thinking of you guys – and I will definitely keep checking out your blog; I already learned something I didn’t know, about Lindt’s donations to Autism Speaks. Oddly, I’d bought a Lindt gold bunny earlier today and didn’t know anything about that! 🙂

  3. Oh, I’m so glad that we aren’t dealing with those meltdowns on a daily basis (many times)! They are exhausting for everyone! My youngest son as SPD, and although he does have a meltdown here and there, we’re able to get through it easier now that he’s had therapy and I know more about SPD. Your tips are GREAT!

    • Thank you so much! I am so blessed that our issues like this are a TON less frequent now too. At worst, this was a more-than-once-a-week thing, usually during homework time, but now it’s maybe this bad once a month, if even that much, and they are MUCH easier to resolve! (And thank goodness for it!)

  4. Joan! Gosh, I had no idea the special challenges you are blessed to have in your life. This is a great post. One of my girls, I bet, is oppositionally defiant. So, if you tell her to do anything, she rebels. It’s a fragile, fragile line to walk. Hugs to you. Thanks a billion for the link love. I’ll share on my page. Just back from a long weekend in Philly and feeling totally refreshed!! Great, great post here.

    • Shawn, your wording there was PERFECT – you really made my day when I read this comment. “Special challenges I am blessed to have in my life.” That is exactly the feeling I have that I struggle to articulate. As always, a master of the written word you are 🙂

      Thank you so much for your support – and for your own blogging, which is an incredible inspiration!

  5. Insightful post, whew! Im tired just reading it, you’re awesome! I’ll do my best to remember these tips when the “rough stuff” starts here, bleh.
    Here from the HHH, have a good week

  6. Thanks! My son is 7, and I highly doubt he’s “on the spectrum” because of his highly prosocial and intuitive behavior much of the time…but then there’s the hour or two each day when he suddenly seems to be possessed by a defiant, sarcastic demon! I have made every one of the mistakes you did, some of them many many times. It’s so hard, but all 5 of your points are highly worthwhile.

    • ‘Becca, THANK YOU for saying that. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one who doesn’t “do it right!” 🙂 Good luck with your son… and with your own efforts to stay calm!

  7. this is a brilliant and interesting post. So much of your advice is stuff that could be applied to kids who are not on the asperges spectrum. I read through it making mental notes for dealing with my son’s melt downs, – not asperges related, but the advice is still useful. I’m pinning this to the Sunday Parenting Party Pinterest board and featuring your post this week. Please grab an I was featured button from my button page if you’d like one.

    • Haha, pay no attention to the Joan behind the curtain. Gearing up for a rebranding/relaunch before the end of the year; a friend is working on a new theme for me and lots of other good stuff is coming too! 🙂

  8. This is an incredible set of tips. I think the tips are not only applicable to aspergie, ADHD, autism, and things considered out of normal, but are they also very useful for any kind of parenting. Thank you very much for sharing. Love it.

  9. I only have one child who has ever gotten me upset, said mean or hurtful things, etc. Only one of the five..and it’s always the bipolar talking. :/ She would never say or do those things otherwise.

    Great post.

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