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.
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.
|A behavior choice – upstairs brain decision||Emotional reaction – downstairs brain hijacks|
|Goal-Oriented: they’re using it to get something||Overload of emotions, stimulation, demands|
|A performance for an audience; manipulation||Continues whether or not someone is watching|
|Tantrum stops as soon as they get their way||Out 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.
- 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