How Do You Teach a Four Year Old to Calm Down?

I think anyone who knows an Autistic person can tell you just how crazy they can get when dealing with negative emotions, especially when they’re outright angry. My son was no exception, becoming quite scary with rage… wanting to hit, kick, throw things… he would just throw himself to the ground and scream with rage for hours.

Time outs helped a little as he’d have nothing to do but sit by himself and calm down but ultimately it didn’t really calm him down enough. What were we going to do? Give him a 2 hour time out? A few minutes here and there simply was not enough to come down from that much anger.

For Christmas, we bought Cameron the new Super Mario Bros Wii game which he loved the moment he laid eyes on it. However, it brought out the beast in him every time we told him it was time to turn it off. It was the worst we had seen from him, you wouldn’t know that Cameron was in that wild little boy at all… it was like watching a tame dog turn rabid.

The first thing we did, which was also the easiest, was the time out method… which ultimately lead to sending him to bed. If a 5 minute time out doesn’t even take a little of the edge off, then he’d just be sent to bed until either he fell asleep from exhaustion or he finally did get it out of his system.

This wasn’t really a solution and within a month or so, it was already proving to be a failure. He wasn’t getting over it, he wasn’t going to sleep. I had to take a more hands on approach which meant fighting my own overwhelming desire to become enraged like he was. I won’t deny it, I’m only human. And even when you know that it’s primarily the Autism at the heart of it, you still can become very easily angered  when your child is going off on a completely wild tantrum. And having to deal with it head on was going to be a really big challenge for me, as well as for him.

After a couple of months of trying our very best to deal with the tantrums as we were told to do, I instead started following him into the bedroom where I would literally hold him down on his bed… now, if you can imagine this, he would be wailing, kicking, screaming, red faced… letting out a ton of rage all in one shot….  and I would be there, holding him down and talking calmly to him the entire time, trying to reason with him.

I think, at first, he didn’t hear a word I said and rather just knew that I was holding him down against his will. It probably only angered him more, especially since Autistics don’t like to be held in the first place. But over the course of a couple of weeks, he began to realize that he wasn’t stronger, he wasn’t getting out and even though he was still angry, he was starting to hear my voice. Maybe not the things I said, but he could tell that despite everything, I was calm. And it was hard, I couldn’t just fake it… I truly had to be calm, despite being angry myself.

I decided to use that in my bit of reasoning, once I knew I was starting to get his attention through it all, I explained to him that I was angry that he was acting like that… that I know he’s better than that. I explained to him that even though I am angry, I’m staying calm because being angry only hurts yourself and others.

I don’t think it mattered much… at first. But again, a couple weeks of this and he started to actually answer me when I asked if he understood what I meant. Keep in mind, he was only 4 at this time… and I’m talking to him like he’s a teenager who gets into fights at school… but I had to try anyway, I knew I could make him understand.

So again, a couple of weeks keep clocking by and I’m only holding him down for a few minutes at a time and then we’re just sitting on the bed talking… I start getting more answers, I start getting more understanding. I ask him if he knows that I’m angry and he says yes. I ask him if I am staying calm and he says yes. I ask him if he’s staying calm and he says no. I explain to him that the hardest thing he may ever have to do is stay calm even when he’s really really really angry and he looks at me… calmly.

Eventually his temper tantrums turn into him screaming at me “No, I don’t want to stay calm!” Frustrating, but he’s getting it! This was my sign that he was learning what it was that helped him to calm himself… to break the rage. And that rage did get broken, in shorter and shorter time.

Come April, a solid 4 months after getting that Christmas present that he loved so much, he was finally turning the game off when asked to, peacefully, quietly, on his own. I don’t think anyone ever thought it would be possible, and certainly not in just 4 months time, however he had beaten the odds and figured out how to stay calm in the face of uncontrollable anger.

He still gets angry sometimes when he’s asked to turn it off, but it doesn’t last too long. He still loses control sometimes but he now knows that he can get it back again.  I know full well that this is something he’ll never truly master, most people with a bad temper never really do but it is something that is manageable. Not every Autistic child is that lucky though, there is simply no way to get to that point.

If anything though, you have to try. Don’t just give your child a time out, send them to bed, hand them off to someone else to deal with… you have to step up your game. You are not just A parent, you are THE parent. Stop listening to how your parents parented, how your aunts, uncles, grandparents or anyone else did it. Their methods were their methods, not yours. In fact, I’m saying that even though I outlined what I did, that may not be your answer. You have to do what you have to do to get through to your child because maybe… just maybe… there’s a way to break through the rage. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a way that they can learn from you, feed from you, grow from you…. maybe they can beat this.

But it won’t be easy and it won’t be over night. It may not be possible at all but even if it takes you a year, 2 years, 20 years to find out that it’s not possible at all, you have to keep trying. One day you may find it, one day your child may surprise you.

I couldn’t be prouder every time my son turns off Mario and walks away and someone in my family says “I never thought I’d see the day.”

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of http://www.stuartduncan.name. My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not.
I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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