Dealing with A Special Needs Child’s Tantrums & Melt-Downs in Physical Therapy

How many times have you walked through the mall and seen a child suddenly throw themselves on the ground screaming and yelling because they couldn’t get that toy that they wanted? We all know that if a parent gives in at that point and buys them what they want so that they’ll calm down, their child will become spoiled. This is the same concept I tell parents to keep in mind when their child is undergoing physical therapy.


When I work with a child at the LIFE program, many times kids will scream and yell at me. They will cry and look at their parents during the session, hoping that they will take them out of my hands. However, if they do so, the child becomes completely unmanageable because they will keep doing the same thing over and over again. Children are very good psychologists. They know that if throwing a tantrum works once, it will work again. And they will do everything in their power to get what they want. It may be tough saying ‘no’, especially when your child is crying throughout their therapy, but it is the best thing you can do for them. Make sure to be firm when saying ‘no’ to your child, but you should always give an explanation for why you are refusing them. I’ve heard so many parents say ‘no’ to their kids, but when their child asks ‘why?’, they just respond with ‘because’. By giving them the reason why you said ‘no’, you are eliminating the conflict from the beginning. The best war is the war that never has to be fought, because you were able to avoid major conflicts and confrontations.


Photo Credits: Health in Motion

Photo Credits: Health in Motion

Nabila, diagnosed with periventricular leukomalacia, working on gaining proper function while her mom looks on

Having said all this, even though you explain yourself to your child, many times they still will not understand and continue to fight with you. But you must be consistent with saying ‘no’ and give the reason for it, and eventually, they will begin to understand. One of my patients was a 4-year-old girl named Nabila. She used to cry and complain throughout her sessions, but her mother and myself would repeatedly tell her that she had to continue with her therapy so that she could learn how to walk. Nabila would still fight me even after our explanations; however, after the first time she was able to walk to her mom during one of our sessions with my help, all the crying ceased. Because she finally understood why this therapy was important for her to continue.


When guiding your child, you must give the reason for what you are doing in order to guide them properly. The biggest mistake most adults make is believing that just because a child is young, disabled, or non-verbal, that they are not able to understand anything. They are able to understand perfectly well, but understanding needs to be built up brick by brick with constant education and good communication. That being said, communication is a two-way street, which is especially important in physical therapy. You must be able to distinguish your child’s cry of pain from the cry of just not wanting to do the hard work required. Once you are able to do this, you will be able to act accordingly. Good luck!


Photo Credits: Health in Motion

Photo Credits: Health in Motion

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About the author

Natan Gendelman has written 274 articles for Enabled Kids.

Natan Gendelman is licensed as a physical therapist in Russia and Israel. After moving to Canada, he was certified as a kinesiologist and osteopathy manual practitioner. Natan has more than 20 years of experience providing rehabilitation and treatment for conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, pediatric stroke and acquired brain injury. He is the founder and director of Health in Motion Rehabilitation, a Toronto-based clinic whose main objective is to teach their patients the independence necessary for success in their daily lives.

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