Author Archives: Janelle Durham

About Janelle Durham

I teach Discovery Science Lab and Family Inventors' Lab, STE(A)M enrichment classes in Bellevue, Washington for ages 3 - 9. I am also a parent educator for Bellevue College, a childbirth educator for Parent Trust for Washington Children, former program designer for PEPS - the Program for Early Parent Support, and a social worker.

Appropriate Ways to Express Feelings

I created three posters as visual aids parents and teachers can use for teaching young children lots of options for appropriate ways to express emotions and release big feelings before they get so big that the child melts down. Here are images, or you can download this free PDF of emotional literacy posters for kids.

Poster for children on appropriate ways to express / release anger.
Poster for children on ways to handle sadness.
Poster for children on ways to cope with fear.

Copyright: these are free to use anywhere, I just ask that no one else sell these for profit.

Learn more about emotional literacy, calm down skills, and the Zones of Regulation tool for noticing and managing emotions. These skills are all useful for toddlers, preschoolers and elementary age kids, age one to 8 years old.

Meltdowns

We often think of meltdowns and tantrums as a toddler behavior, but they still happen with older children (even adults!) Meltdowns are more common for neurodiverse children, including kids with autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorders. But any one can have one given enough stressors.

Tantrum vs. Meltdown

When you see a child throw themselves to the ground, or scream, sob, flail or hit, there are two very different things that may be happening. Understanding which it is guides your response.

Tantrum

A tantrum is when a child chooses to do these behaviors, with the goal of getting something they want or making you agree to something you’d said no to. They may be more likely to do this on a day when they’re hungry or tired or overwhelmed, but the tantrum itself is a behavior choice (an upstairs brain decision). A tantrum is a performance. They will stop if there is no audience, they’ll stop if it’s not working to get them what they want.

A tantrum is a discipline issue. You want to guide them away from choosing this behavior, and toward positive ways of achieving their goals. If they tantrum to manipulate, don’t give a lot of attention, and don’t give in. Kids who learn they can get you to change the rules if they tantrum will do it a lot! You can empathize with the feelings but restate the limit. “I hear you really want ___ and you’re upset I’m saying no. But our rule is ___.” When they discover this behavior doesn’t gain them anything, they give up on it and the tantrum ends.

TantrumMeltdown
A behavior choice – upstairs brain decisionEmotional reaction – downstairs brain hijacks
Goal-Oriented: they’re using it to get somethingOverload of emotions, stimulation, demands 
A performance for an audience; manipulationContinues whether or not someone is watching
Tantrum stops as soon as they get their wayOut of control – can’t stop even if you fix trigger

A meltdown is not a choice. It’s an emotional response to a brain on overload. Too much stimulation or too many demands or too many big feelings overload them. It can manifest as a fight or flight reaction – some children may hit, kick, bite or throw things. Others may run, hide, curl up in a ball, cover their eyes or ears. Some may shut down completely. (Freeze.)

Meltdowns are not a behavior choice, so rewards or punishment to stop the meltdowns won’t work, and trying to reason with your child won’t work. They need a different approach.

The Downstairs Brain

Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel uses an analogy for understanding the brain. The downstairs brain (brain stem, limbic system) is responsible for survival and emotions. It’s fully developed in a toddler. The upstairs brain (parietal lobe, frontal lobe, prefrontal cortex) is responsible for advanced functions like language, decision-making, impulse control and empathy. The upstairs brain take years to develop – adolescence and beyond. When a person of any age is very upset, emotions block their ability to use their upstairs brain. They regress to the downstairs brain. They “flip their lid.” When they’re in this state, they can’t “use their words” or even hear yours. They can’t make good decisions, they can’t be reasoned with and they can’t “just calm down”.

Managing a meltdown

  • Often “something little” triggers a huge meltdown. It’s the last straw on top of a lot of other stress. Fixing it or explaining it won’t fix the meltdown because it’s not the real reason. Focus on calming instead.
  • Stay calm. A child in meltdown is overwhelmed by the strength of their own emotions and needs you to model emotional stability to help re-ground them.
  • Get down low, use a low voice and move slowly so you don’t trigger fight/flight.
  • Stay close by. Being nearby helps a child feel safer – they know you’re there when they’re ready for comfort. If they come to you for a hug, welcome it. But don’t crowd them – this provokes anger – they’ll yell ‘go away’.
  • Don’t ask questions or try to talk the child down with a lot of words. If you need to speak to change your child’s behavior, or move them to a safer place, give very simple commands.
  • Reduce the stimulation – go somewhere quieter or turn off the lights. Reduce the demands.
  • Don’t let your child hurt themself, other people or things. At times, you might need to physically restrain them to keep things safe. (Be sure that you’re calm enough to do this gently.) They will resist for a bit, then often shift from anger to sadness in your arms.
  • After the meltdown blows over, comfort. Name and validate emotions they were feeling. If appropriate, work on a solution for the issue that triggered the meltdown.
  • Sometimes after your child has calmed down, you are still full of tension and stress. Use self-care to help you release tension – deep breaths, a short break, or get support.
  • Talk about the meltdown later when everyone’s calm.
  • Talk about how you might work together to prevent meltdowns in the future or reduce their frequency.

Reduce Meltdowns

  • Meet physical needs: A child is less likely to melt down if rested, fed, and comfortable.
  • Set expectations: Tell them ahead of time what to expect. If things change from what was expected, remember that unexpected changes can be a trigger for a meltdown, so be supportive. Creating routines helps.
  • Emotional Literacy: Talk about emotions. Teach and model positive ways to express and manage feelings before they become too big and unmanageable. Read children’s books about emotions.
  • Be aware of triggers – things you know upset your child. Sometimes you have to be a detective to figure this out – start tracking their meltdowns and seeing what the situations have in common – is it too much noise? Smells? Scratchy clothes? Too many people? Too many decisions? Pressure to perform or accomplish something? Unpredicted changes?
  • Choose your battles. On a good day, your child can take on new challenges or do hard things. Some days that’s just too much and it’s compassionate to go easy on them.
  • Watch for early cues: Notice when your child is reaching the end of their rope. If you can notice the escalation (when a child is starting to get over-excited, or angry, or upset) when it’s starting, you may be able to ward off a meltdown by stepping in to soothe then.
  • Talk about meltdowns when they’re NOT having one. Practice coping skills, create a calm down space, and try calm down tools when they don’t need them. Praise them when they can calm themselves down.

More helpful tips:

Sensory Meltdown Survival Guide: wonderbaby.org/articles/sensory-meltdown

For helpful tools to help your child learn to notice when they’re escalating and calm themselves down, check out my posters on Expressing Emotions, and this post on the Zones of Regulation.

It can be hard keeping your cool when your child is losing theirs on a regular basis. Check out ideas for Reducing Parental Meltdowns and Coping with your own Anger

Talking to Young Children about Emergency Drills

Image from: https://www.teepublic.com/t-shirt/1684401-this-is-a-drill-this-is-only-a-drill

As adults responsible for children’s safety, parents and teachers of preschool age children need to know and to practice what we would do in case of an emergency. Fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills and, sadly, lockdown drills are an essential part of planning how to keep children safe.

But… how do we talk to children age 3 – 5 about what we’re doing and why?

My general approach to talking to young children about scary topics, is to:

  • talk about how likely something is to happen
  • talk about how we would know it was happening
  • teach children what they themselves can do to make it better and
  • explain what the adults will do to make it better.

I use this approach when doing fire drills and earthquake drills. (Read this post for all the details on how I talk with children about earthquakes.) A key point is that when you talk about the possible dangers of these emergencies, keep it gentle. The goal is to Prepare Not Scare. For example, I want them prepared by knowing that in an earthquake they need to drop down to their hands and knees because otherwise they might get knocked over and I want them to know to cover their heads / necks in case things are falling. That is information that will help to keep them safe. I do not tell them that buildings can fall down and people can die. That’s really scary and doesn’t build their ability to take safe actions.

So, that’s information I share if I know the drill is coming. However, at some facilities, they do drills without warning the staff. (The idea is that the drill is more realistic if we’re not all prepped and ready for a drill.) If I’m lucky, I have already done a pre-planned drill with this group of children so we have had a chance to talk about this before. But once, I got surprised by an unexpected drill with a group of children on their second day of class when they were still getting to know the classroom and the teachers.

In that case, we just execute all the steps of our drill, and then move on. In a class with three and four year olds, I would typically just resume the day’s activities. If they seemed unfazed by it, I wouldn’t talk it through with the whole class, but if individual kids had questions, I would answer them. With older children, I might sit them down and explain more in the moment. If you are a parent who knows that your child did a drill that day, just be aware of it. Some children will never go back and ask “why did we do that thing?” If they don’t ask, and don’t seem to have any concerns about it, I don’t worry about it. If they ask questions, or seem worried about something, then talk it through.

If they have questions or concerns about the possible emergency, such as about a fire, then I explain more details, in a realistic but non-scary way. If they have questions or concerns about why we do drills, I explain that grown-ups are responsible for keeping kids safe if an emergency happens. And the whole trick with an emergency is that we don’t know when it will happen, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.

I explain that we have to have some plans we’ve practiced in advance, just in case. Our fire drills help us practice – what if we all needed to get out of the building quickly. Our earthquake drills help us practice – what if we all need to stop moving and stay where we are. Lockdown drills help us practice – what if something dangerous was happening outside, and we all needed to gather together inside where we could all keep an eye on each other. Drills are all about practicing – listening to the grown-ups and doing what they ask you to do quickly. And we’ll probably never need to use those emergency skills, but if we do, we have all practiced them and will know how they work.

My approach to lockdown drills is a little different than natural disaster situations. I do NOT explain why we would do a lockdown. I just say “if it seems like something dangerous may be happening outside the classroom, sometimes it is safest to stay in the classroom.” I don’t talk about bad guys and guns and bullets and so on. I do not want the children in my care to be fearful that people are dangerous and that a shooting is imminent or inevitable. I want them to feel safe in their world.

[I do acknowledge that I have some privilege here – I teach in a quiet suburb of a liberal city in a state with tighter gun control laws than many other states. Your environment and needs may differ.]

Now, I might not have talked about bad guys and guns, but sometimes one of the children will! Then I can address that yes, sometimes people do bad things that harm others, including using guns. But I can go back to my message of: how likely is it to happen here – not likely. What do we do to protect ourselves? Exactly what we’re doing.

How to Talk to YOURSELF about lockdown drills…

I totally understand that you, as a parent or teacher, may have a lot of anxiety of your own about school shootings, and a lot of fear where you’ve played through in your head – “what if it happened at my child’s school.” Running a lockdown drill as a teacher, or knowing as a parent that your child participated in a lockdown drill may bring that all up for you.

I would encourage you to do some processing of your own concerns, reaching out to other parents, teachers, or therapists for support as needed so that you can get to a place where you can be calm when talking to your child about these things (or at least put on a good act of being calm). During our unexpected lockdown drill, I was grateful that I am able to remain calm in these sorts of situations and focus on getting through the mechanics of a drill without going down my personal rabbit hole of “what ifs.”

Here are some articles you may find helpful:

More about Talking with Your Child

If you want more ideas for how to have these conversations, I find this article Talking to Kids about School Lockdown Drills has some really helpful modeling of what to say. For example: “Even though we might hear about it when something like this happens in a school, there are thousands and thousand and thousands of schools where it never happens and it’s never going to happen. So nothing bad is likely to happen at our school. The school is all set up to keep you safe and the principal and the teachers… have all kinds of ideas and plans to protect your school and keep anyone bad away. … You’re practicing to be safe. That’s really important. … When you practice something enough, then you don’t even have to think about it. We practice [safety] all the time, like stopping at a corner and looking both ways before we step into the street.”

That article also has this really helpful description of understanding and calming anxiety: “Let me tell you why you feel so weird when you’re scared. There are two parts to your brain. One feels your feelings… The other part thinks. …When you get scared, you sometimes forget to take good breaths. And … your brain, which is hungry for the good oxygen… gets worried, too. … It thinks it’s supposed to panic and get you ready to run away! … Your heart is probably feeling like it’s racing as it sends out energy and blood to your arms and legs so you can run. But you’re not going to run, so there you are, just wondering why you feel like this, why your muscles feel tight. Your body takes energy away from your belly … so you feel those butterflies there…. you might feel dizzy. … But you can tell that part of your brain, the part that does the thinking, that you’re safe and okay. … By taking some good, oxygen-filled breaths, so nice and big that you fill your belly… Imagine that you’re blowing out candles on your birthday cake. You could even put up one finger and pretend it’s a candle you’re blowing out. And then when you’re good and empty of air, your body and brain want to fill up again with oxygen, so you’ll take a lovely breath in. And your brain starts to feel calm again. And when the brain is calm, your body can calm down, too. Like magic. Do it with me.”

“Tricky People” vs. “Stranger Danger”

candy

Why Not Teach Stranger Danger?

For decades, parents and educators have taught the idea of stranger danger. There are several flaws to this message:

  • It creates a culture of fear. It can be frightening to a child to be out in public when they’ve been told that all the strangers around them are people to be feared.
  • Talking about “bad people” means that our children are on the lookout for people who look and act evil: the mustache-twirling, black-clad villain. Most people who perpetrate crimes against children are nice looking and quite charming.
  • Talking about “odd looking” or “dangerous looking” people or “people who don’t look like us” can lead to racial profiling and prejudiced attitudes.
  • Creating fear of strangers might mean that our children are afraid to seek help from adults when needed – such as a lost child who is too frightened to approach a security guard to help find their parents, or a lost child who evades rescuers because they are strangers to him.
  • Crimes against children are relatively rare. When they do happen, it is much more likely that they are committed by someone the child knows than by a stranger.
    • For child sexual abuse, only 10% of perpetrators are strangers, 60% are non-family members who are known to the child and family, 30% are family members. Source. In 23% of reported cases the perpetrator was under the age of 18.  (Stats for Canada here.)
    • We may worry about the stereotypical kidnapping where a stranger abducts a child. There are only about 105 of those a year in the US, where there are 17 million children. In 90% of kidnapping cases, the kidnappers are family members, usually non-custodial parents. Source.
    • If our children have been taught that strangers are always bad, but that the people they know are always “safe”, then we have not protected them.

I don’t want my children to be frightened of all the new people they encounter. I want my children, and the children I work with, to feel safe in their world. Children are happiest and learn best when they feel safe. I tell children, through my words, my body language, and my interactions, that the vast majority of people are good people. Even a stranger who looks very different from the people I interact with every day is most likely a good person.

But, when children are around three years old is a good time to start talking about “tricky people.” They’re not a certain kind of people (like strangers, or like people whose skin is a different color from my own) but they are any person who displays certain odd behaviors. Those behaviors should raise red flags for a child, and let them know they should check in with a trusted adult for advice on how to respond.

What are Tricky People?

Here are some things to tell your child to watch out for. Tricky people may:

  • ask kids for help (such as help finding a lost puppy or pretending to be hurt)
    • If safe grown-ups really need help, they’ll ask other grown-ups. Your child should know that if an adult asks them for help, they should go speak to a trusted adult.
  • try to arrange for alone time with a child
    • Let your child know that it’s best not to go somewhere alone with one adult unless a trusted adult has told them it’s OK.
  • try to make one particular kid feel special, lavishing praise and gifts
    • Tell your child if someone offers to give them something (candy, money, a kitten), they shouldn’t take it and say they need to ask their parents if that is OK.
  • ask kids to do something that breaks the family rules, or just doesn’t feel right
    • Teach your child to think about whether an interaction feels fine or gives them an uncomfortable “uh-oh” feeling. Encourage them to trust their instincts.
  • ask kids to keep a secret from their parents or their teacher, or threatens something like “if you tell, you’ll be in big trouble”
    • Any time this happens, a child should tell their parent or a teacher.
  • touches a child a lot (tickling, wrestling, asking for hugs), especially if they get angry or unhappy if the child says no to the touch
  • touches a child in a private area, asks a child to touch their private parts, asks to see a child’s private areas, asks to take pictures of private area, or shows a child their private areas
  • tells the child “there’s an emergency. You need to come with me right now.” Note: For children over 5, it can be a good idea to establish a password (see below).

How to Help Your Child be “Street Smart”

Here are some things we can do to help our kids be safe:

For a child age 1 and up

  • Teach them their name and their parents’ name(s)
  • Under three years old, I don’t talk about “tricky people” or “bad people.” But, if I am in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I show it with my body language, and I tell my child “I don’t like being here… I don’t feel safe right now. We’re going to leave.” Even at this age, I want to start teaching them to trust their instincts.
  • Tell them they need to stay near you when you’re out in public, set boundaries – tell them where it’s OK to go and what’s not OK. If they step outside those limits, or refuse to hold your hand in a parking lot, or whatever guidelines you have set, then there should be consequences (e.g. you need to leave the park, or you need to carry them in the parking lot.)
  • When going anyplace where you might become separated, put your contact info somewhere on them (e.g. on a card in their pocket, on a bracelet, etc.). Also, take a picture of them that day with your phone so if you become separated you have a photo of what they look like and they are wearing.
  • Teach healthy touch: high fives and fist bumps, patting on the back, brief hugs, etc. Don’t force your child to give a hug to someone if they are not comfortable.
  • Teach them names for their body parts, including private parts. It is best to use commonly used terms (e.g. penis or vagina), not family euphemisms. Feeling comfortable with these words makes it possible for a child to explain if something inappropriate happens. (Learn more.)

For a child age 3 and up

Everything listed above, plus:

  • Be sure they know their address, parents’ names, and parents’ phone numbers.
  • Help them know what adults you trust. Tell them: “if you ever feel scared or need help, then ____ and _____ are adults you can talk to.”
    • Talk to them about how to find a trustworthy stranger if they somehow become separated from you and need help. Some parents teach to look for a police officer, but they’re not always around. So, I also tell my children to look for a person who is working there – I help them identify workers – they’re standing behind the check-out counter, or they’re wearing a uniform. I also tell them they could go to another parent – someone who has a child with them. From time to time, we practice this – I ask my child to look around and identify two people who they could ask for help if needed. Also, point out “safe spots” – the places they are most likely to find helpful people.
    • Talk to them about “tricky people” and what behaviors are red flags. Don’t try to cover it all in one big “talk” – it should be an on-going dialogue.
    • If your child is uncomfortable around someone and wants to avoid that person, don’t dismiss this. Respect your child’s instincts.
  • If you go somewhere you might get separated (the zoo, an amusement park, a large event), talk to them on the way there about the importance of staying close to you the whole time. Tell them that if they look around and can’t find you, they should stop where they are and you will find them.
  • By the time they are three, teach them that the parts of their body that are covered by a swimsuit are private. They should be kept covered around other people, and other people should not touch them there, except for parents or caregivers who are briefly helping to clean them, or a doctor, when the parents are in the room.
  • Don’t label your child’s clothes or backpacks with their name in big, visible letters. “Tricky” adults often use a child’s name to convince the child they are safe.

As your child gets older, and more independent:

Everything listed above, plus

  • They should know contact info for multiple trusted adults, and have a plan for how they could contact them. (For a younger child who doesn’t have a cell phone, they should know how to seek adult help. For older kids with phones, they need plans for what to do if their phone battery dies.)
  • If going someplace  you may get separated, have a plan in advance for where you would meet up again. Make sure they can describe it to you, and from time to time, ask them “do you remember where our meet-up place is? Can you point to where it is?”
  • A responsible adult should always know where they are. Set boundaries on where they can go, ask that they check in with you from time to time, and require that they check in if their plans change.
  • In the places they frequent, they should be able to list “safe spots” where they could go for help if they were feeling worried – for example, if someone at the park was making them uncomfortable, they could go into the nearby convenience store. They should also know to avoid unsafe spots – isolated areas with no one around.
  • They should know how and in what circumstances to call 9-1-1.
  • They should know never to answer the door when they are home alone.
  • They should know never to approach a stranger’s car. If someone calls them over to a car, they should not go.
  • When out and about, they should use the buddy system, not go places alone.
  • If someone offers them money, or an easy job, they should be wary.
  • Consider a family password so that if you ever could need to send an unexpected adult to pick them up in case of emergency, your child could ask that adult for the password to be sure it’s really someone you sent. You could also use that code word or another one for your child to communicate to you “I’m feeling unsafe and I need your help.”
  • Tell them to trust their instincts. If they’re worried about something, they should talk to you or another trusted adult who can help them problem-solve. If they’re very frightened, they should call 9-1-1 or shout for help. Tell them it is better to seek help and find out that everything is actually OK than it is to not seek help when things really are bad.
  • Give kids examples of “tricky behavior”; have them describe how they would respond.
  • Don’t talk about “bad touch” because sometimes sexual touch can feel good or can “tickle.” Instead, talk about “secret touch” that the other person wants you to hide from people, or touch that makes them feel wrong after it happened. Let children know that if anyone ever touches them in an inappropriate way (or makes the child touch them), that it’s not the child’s fault and they will not be in trouble with you. Perpetrators may first involve children by showing them pornography – let your child know that if someone shows them pornography, they should let you know.
  • Explain that you’re teaching safety rules because they are more mature and ready to be responsible. You want to give them more freedom, but you also need to be reassured that they know how to stay safe.

Letting Your Children Out of Your Sight

Here’s an example of how this could play out: My six year old wanted to be able to sit on the front porch and read while I was inside making dinner. We set boundaries: “you can sit on the porch swing. You may not leave the porch or step onto the driveway or the path to the sidewalk.” We reminded him of tricky people ideas: “we have lots of people walk by the house. Remember, that most people are good people. If they wave or say hi, you can say hi back. However, if they ask you to leave the porch, they’re being tricky and you need to come inside and get us. If they step off the sidewalk onto our driveway or path, you need to come in right away. Even if it’s someone you know from church or school, I would still want you to come inside and get me.” We let him know that as long as he could follow the rules, he could have porch-sitting privileges. But if he ever violated those rules, he would lose those privileges.

Deciding to let a child play outside unsupervised, or let an older child go places without you, requires a leap of faith on your part. It can be scary to take that risk. But remember that keeping them at home and in sight at all times also creates risks – it limits their potential to be active, independent, decision-making people.

Part of parenting is teaching our kids the skills they need to know so that later on, they don’t need us so much any more. This is just one of many things that we do to prepare them to be out in the world on their own.

Handouts: If you’re a parent educator who would like to share this information with families, I’ve created a 4 page handout and 2 page handout of this information.

Related Topics: Check out my posts on Better You Than YouTube – Having the Hard Conversations, Talking to Children about Sexuality; Talking to Children about Touch, Consent and Bodily Autonomy; and Talking about Scary Topics (e.g. violence, natural disasters, accidents, etc.)

More Resources

Stimming: Self-Soothing Behaviors

What is Stimming?

Have you seen a child flapping their hands? Elbows bent, hands up by their face, hands flapping like bird wings?

Some children may do it when they’re worried or anxious. Other children may show this behavior when they’re excited or happy, as in this video.

(You can see other examples of excited hand flapping / stimming at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD9OPDUVejo and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_gZqQy_Ae4.)

Hand-flapping is an example of a self-soothing behavior. There are several other self-soothing behaviors children use, like rocking, thumb sucking, jumping, spinning, humming, hair twirling, or lining objects up in a row. These repetitive behaviors might be called “stimming” for self-stimulating, or stereotypy.

This is common in toddlers, then tends to become less common as they get older – fading in the preschool years. But some children continue to do it. Parents of older children who still do this often view it as a problem that needs to be solved, and may say things like “how do I stop my child from flapping their hands?”

Let’s first figure out why children stim, and then think about how to respond to it.

Why do people stim?

When you’re nervous, do you ever bounce your knee? Or bite your lip? Or wring your hands? When you’re impatient, do you tap your foot or drum your fingernails? Have you ever been so excited that you want to bounce up and down? Or clap your hands and squeal? Or throw your hands up in a victory celebration? When there is a sudden loud noise, do you cover your ears? When you’re waiting on hold on the phone, do you click your pen up and down, pace, or rock your chair? Do you mumble to yourself or swear repeatedly to communicate your frustrations? These are things we all do. These things could be called “stimming” because our brains/bodies are seeking to regulate stimulation, whether that’s to distract us when we’re bored or soothe us when we’re anxious or release tension or express big emotions. Having stimulation that we chose can help us to regulate our brains/senses.

Neurotypical folks can typically stop themselves from doing these behaviors if they feel like it’s not appropriate where they are, or if they’re disturbing someone or if they don’t want other people to notice them.

Some people have a hard time stopping themselves from stimming or are very uncomfortable if forced to stop. This can be a sign of autism, though not everyone who stims is autistic. (If your child is over 3 years old, and frequently flaps their hands or uses other stims and also shows other possible signs of autism, it’s a good idea to learn more about autism, learn more about deciding whether to have your child assessed for autism, and how to access developmental testing.)

If you want to better understand why someone is flapping or stimming, here are ideas to explore:

  • Determine what triggers the behavior. Is it too much stimulation? stress? excitement overload? Or boredom? (too little stimulation)
  • If you change the environment (for example, making it quieter and more peaceful), does that change the frequency of the stimming?
  • If you give them an acceptable alternative for boring circumstances where they have to sit still (like having a fidget spinner in class or a coloring book at church), does that reduce the stimming?
  • Does it help if you “notice” and validate the underlying feelings: “It looks like you’re really excited about this.” Or if you notice what’s triggering their behavior: “it is really loud here – that’s bothering you isn’t it?”
  • If it only happens in certain situations or certain moods, it can be easier to understand and to influence. If they do it all the time in all circumstances, it may have become a habit, and making changes to the environment or activities may not change it.
  • Are they seeking attention? An autistic child who is stimming typically does not care whether others notice. Some neurotypical children may do behaviors like stimming because they notice that they get a lot of attention when they do. If you have realized they only do these things when they have an audience, stop paying attention to the performance and see if the behavior fades.
  • Can you re-direct their attention to some other activity? If so, then do. Or is it really hard for them to stop? This perseveration may be more common for autistic children.

Do we need to stop a child from stimming?

Before deciding that stimming needs to be “fixed”, it’s important to ask autistic people about autistic experiences to get their perspective. In her post “the Obsessive Joy of Autism“, Julia Bascom, current Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) says

“One of the things about autism is that a lot of things… are harder. But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap… I  flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle… I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happyso enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.”

Julia Bascom

And another perspective from an individual with an autism spectrum disorder:

No one should try to stop hand flapping because it is part of who we are. Would you like it if everyone were trying to make you stop smiling? … Or putting your sunglasses on top of your head? Or crossing your legs when you sat? That is what people are doing to us when they try to make us stop flapping our hands: they are trying to force us to stop moving in ways that are natural, healthy, and comfortable to us.

Good Autism School

I know many autistic adults who may “mask” at work and in public – acting in ways that are considered neurotypical. This helps them to fit in better but can be exhausting. When they are amongst friends and family, they may stim when it soothes them or gives them joy.

My son is 11 – his current stims are making random sudden noises, and the need to say the same thing multiple times in a row. (Typically either something he’s really excited about or something he’s saying to talk himself out of being worried about something.) Our family knows that saying things multiple times is soothing to him, so we roll with it at home. But we do let him know that it can annoy other people or lead peers to shun him, and we asked him if he wanted our help figuring out other ways to manage this – like writing things down on post-its he brings home from school. Random noises are OK at home, but we asked him if he wanted ideas for alternate things he can do elsewhere when he has that energy that won’t disturb others, like blowing out a puff of air instead of making a noise, or flicking his fingers.

If the stimming isn’t causing problems for the child, you don’t need to “fix” it.

When is stimming a problem to work on?

  • When it interrupts other activities (e.g. their hands are so busy flapping, they can’t use them to do other things),
  • When it is blocking learning (e.g. they are frequently being asked to leave the classroom because they’re overly disruptive),
  • When it affects your child’s ability to make friends,
  • If your child is accidentally harming themselves or others, or
  • If the child themself wants to reduce the behavior or wants to learn to mask when they choose to

What are ways we might reduce stimming?

First, never punish stimming. This would be like punishing a child for crying. Or for laughing. Don’t criticize or shame a child for stimming.

Here are some supportive methods to try that might reduce stimming if it has become a problem:

  • Increase physical activity: If the child gets more exercise (especially heavy work) or spends more time outside, does that reduce stimming behavior?
  • Change environments: Can you spend more time in environments that the child finds calming and less time in places / circumstances that overload them?
  • Place and Time: Can you set times and places where stimming is welcomed? That might help reduce their need to do it in situations where it is more problematic.
  • Replacement behaviors: Are there other things they can do with their body that meet the same needs? Maybe hand clapping, hand pressing (like in a prayer position), playing with play-dough, or using a fidget toy. If they are stimming, instead of saying “don’t flap”, re-direct them to the replacement behavior: “get your calming bottle.” When you see them proactively choosing a replacement behavior instead of stimming, praise that.
  • Overcorrection: Sometimes flapping hands really hard and fast for a just a short while, or jumping hard and fast for a little while, will help get it out of their system quicker.
  • Release Tension: One of the reasons for stimming is to release tension – are there other effective releases – laughter, crying over sad movies, journaling or drawing?
  • Build emotional literacy: Teach and practice emotional regulation skills (Check out the Zones of Regulation tools.)
  • Raise awareness and make plans: When the child is stimming, you could briefly comment on it to help them be aware. If you notice common triggers, you may help your child notice those. Then you can work together on an action plan. For example, if noise and crowds overwhelm them, you might plan a trip to the zoo for a Tuesday afternoon rather than Saturday morning. Prepare and inform: when you’re approaching an event that might cause your child stress, let them know and talk about ways they might manage that.
  • Professional support: A therapist to address anxiety can help. An occupational therapist trained in sensory integration can help with regulation. (You may also see information about ABA therapy. That can help, but be very cautious about this option, as much of ABA therapy is framed around the idea of “fixing” autism by training children to behave “normally” and withholding rewards when they show autistic behaviors. I recommend you not choose places that define stimming as a problem, instead choose one that offers alternatives to stimming that a child could choose to use instead.)
  • Parent support: Talking to other parents of kids with challenging behaviors can be a huge help, as you learn you’re not alone in your worries. It can also help parents to talk with a parent educator, parent coach, or therapist to discuss their own concerns.

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