Tantrums, meltdowns, and the actual hardest part of Special Needs Parenting

Cary NC autism therapist on the hardest part of special needs parenting


I hear it from parents all the time:

The hardest part of special needs parenting actually has nothing to do with your child. The most difficult thing is dealing with all of the negative reactions you get from others when you’re just trying to help your child navigate a world that isn’t really set up for them.

I got a firsthand reminder of this a few weeks ago.

It was the week before Christmas. I was at Target, in a checkout line full of harried holiday shoppers. A few lines over, I noticed a mother trying to coax her child off the floor. He became increasingly agitated, slamming his fists on the ground and beginning to roll on the floor under the cart. He didn’t seem to care or even notice that he was knocking over some displays in the process.

The mother’s face told a story of exhaustion, agitation, and embarrassment. Others around her exchanged knowing glances. In their minds, this child was clearly a brat who was angling for a piece of candy or a toy with his tantrum.

But as soon as I saw the mother digging through her purse and pull out a weighted vest, I knew that this child was not tantruming. He was having a meltdown.

What’s the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown?

While some people use the terms interchangeably, a tantrum and a meltdown are in fact very different things. They do share some similarities. Both represent deregulation in response to acute internal distress. However, tantrums are typically more verbal and pleading in nature. A child who is tantruming has an identifiable goal in mind, even if they can’t communicate it verbally. By contrast, a meltdown is characterized by uncontrollable physical reaction, including physical aggression.

A tantrum that isn’t resolved may become a meltdown, but the opposite doesn’t happen.

Understanding these differences, it makes sense that appropriate discipline is the correct response to a tantrum, whereas there is no easy way to help a child out of a meltdown that is in full swing. A tantruming child is trying to get something. They will engage in a back and forth communication hoping to achieve whatever it is they’ve got their sights set on. A child in meltdown is simply acting out physically how they feel internally. They perceive that the situation they are in is overwhelming and that they are out of control.

How to parent your child during a meltdown

If you child has meltdowns, ideally you’d work with a professional to teach your child to self-monitor, to recognize signs of overwhelm or anxiety, and to self-sooth and regulate their emotional response.

Helping your child learn to manage these behaviors may take years of intentional practice and intervention. How then, can you respond now, in the moment, when your child has a meltdown?

The mother I saw in Target did many things right in response to her child’s meltdown. She remained quiet, knowing that trying to rationalize or reason with her child in this heightened, deregulated emotional state would be ineffective. She tried instead to focus on physical comfort by offering her child a weighted vest to help him feel deep pressure stimulation. This physical sensation can be effectively calming for a child who feels unable to regulate themselves. She did her best to remain calm in a difficult situation, modeling for her child the response she hoped he’d learn to develop.

The actual hardest part of special needs parenting

The shoppers around the mother had already made up their minds though. The child on the floor was a spoiled brat, and she was an ineffective parent. She didn’t have the gumption to give her child what he really needed; a stern talking to or a spanking.

This is the hardest part.

Remembering to stay calm yourself to model self-control. Going to weekly therapies for years on end. Reading every journal article, blog post, or news story looking for one new strategy that you haven’t tried before. Buying every fidget possible and scattering them in every purse and vehicle so that they’re always available. Never seeing your spouse because you parent on shifts so that you don’t have to expose your child to the overwhelming trips to the grocery store or the mall. You do these things because they are what’s best for your child. You do all of these things and more, and still the average bystander thinks you’re not doing enough, and that what you’re doing is wrong.

When I talk with parents in individual therapy or in group workshops about the hardest part of being a special needs parent, this is what it is. It’s facing the ignorance of others, especially when it sounds like harsh judgment of you and your child. The result is feeling completely isolated from other parents, your own family, and society in general, because it seems clear that they just don’t get it.

A little hope

For the mom in Target though, this wasn’t the case. Another shopper totally got it.

I watched as another woman walked over to the struggling mom and said:

‘Take your child to your car. When he’s safe and ready, pull your car up to the front of the store. I’m buying your groceries and will meet you there to put them in your car. I won’t take no for an answer. Now go.’

The mom, stunned, didn’t say a word. She scooped her child off the floor, and carried him toward the front door, as he wailed uncontrollably. She had to stop once and put him down when he tried to bite her. Then she lifted him back up and made her way into the parking lot.

The other woman replaced the shelved items that the child had spilled onto the floor. She paid for their purchases and made her way outside. When I left the store a few minutes later, she was still waiting at the front of the store for the mom to pull up in her vehicle.

I spoke with her briefly. I won’t share the details here, but our short conversation left me with a feeling of faith in the goodness of people.

If you want to say something to people who don’t understand what they’re seeing

Sometimes in those hard moments, its easiest to remain focused on your child . Sometimes it’s possible to simply ignore the looks and comments from the people around you.

Other times that feels harder to do. For those times when you’d like to respond, I hope you’ll read my advice on what to do when someone says mean things about your special needs child. Whether they actually say something, or just give looks like the ones the mom in Target was getting, these are the responses that I’ve seen work really well in the past.

If you know other parents who would agree that this is actually the hardest part of raising a child with unique needs, and who would benefit from hearing that they’re not alone, I hope you will share this post with them (you can use the social share buttons below to do so)!

Wishing you all a new year full of plenty of opportunities to give and receive kindness.

Rosellen Reif

MS, LPCA, CRC, QDD/MHP at Reif Psychological Services
Rosellen Reif offers in-home counseling in Cary, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina to kids, adults, and families affected by disabilities like Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, Down Syndrome, Asperger's, Cerebral Palsy, and Prader Willi Syndrome.