Derail that train of thought. If you’re not able to just pick up and leave – and face it, sometimes you can’t – squat down, get your face right in his face and (this is going to sound crazy) blow on him. Or hum. Cross your eyes and make a goofy face. What you’re looking for is distraction – derail his train of thought for a moment, if you can. Sure, you’ll look stupid, but you’re already feeling like you’re being judged by everyone around you, so who cares? I once whispered in my kid’s ear “If you keep that up, you’re gonna make me fart.” He stopped screaming immediately and snorted with laughter. Every time he tried to whine or raised his voice, I made a goofy, panicked face and crossed my legs and he laughed. People in the supermarket might have thought I was a lunatic, but he forgot what he was mad about so I didn’t care. You can always address his bad behavior when you get out to the car.
Don’t be afraid to physically restrain a harmful child. And by restrain, I don’t mean with ropes or chains, of course (no matter how tempting that fleeting thought can be sometimes). This isn’t always going to be easy, and you might feel like you’re wrestling a tiger, but you also can’t let your kid slam his head into the floor over and over, or keep taking swings at his sibling. Some autism parents use a weighted blanket to help calm a child in sensory overload or meltdown, and that technique works wonders for most kids. Just get a heavy quilt and wrap them in it, or if that’s not handy, sit them on your lap (or get down on the floor with them) and wrap your arms around them, enclosing their arms. Hold as tightly as you need to (without causing them pain, of course) for as long as you need to. Sometimes it helps to rock a little. Get ready for your other kids to voice an objection – it looks like you’re coddling and rewarding bad behavior to them – but you’re the parent, here. Your objective is to calm and sometimes, restraint is the only thing that works. Once the child is calm, then you can administer the time-out and/or make them apologize for their actions.
Dealing with a child in meltdown is no fun for anyone – least of all the child. They need your help to regulate until they develop the skills to do so themselves. Above all, remember that their tantrums aren’t a reflection on how good a parent you are. Different kids tantrum for different reasons, and as long as you’re addressing it and helping them find a way through it and to a calmer place safely, you’re doing your job – your sometimes thankless, sometimes frustrating, but you wouldn’t-trade-it-for-the-world job.
Then pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and remember how sweet your kids look when they sleep. It helps. It really does.