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Managing children’s meltdowns

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I don’t coach children per se, but I have children of my own and I have coached many parents on how to deal with meltdowns in children. Having children who have meltdowns can make it very difficult for neurodiverse parents to emotionally regulate.

Meltdowns vs. Tantrums 

It’s important to make the distinction between a tantrum and a meltdown. Despite their similar appearances, meltdowns are different from tantrums. Tantrums are usually a child’s way of getting what they want. Meltdowns, on the other hand, serve no purpose and are beyond the control of a child.

They are the physical manifestation of neurobiological chaos caused by a perceived threat to life. Meltdowns are not behavioural responses and generally aren’t used to attain a specific outcome. The reaction is involuntary and cannot be controlled as intense emotions take over. Once a child is in meltdown, they cannot usually respond to standard behavioural calming cues or techniques. 

Recovery time

A child’s recovery time after a meltdown can vary and depend on several factors, including the child and the circumstances surrounding the meltdown. After removing the stressor or trigger, it may take up to 20 minutes for a child to recover from a meltdown. In addition to the intensity of the meltdown, the child’s sensory processing difficulties, and their ability to self-regulate may also have an impact on the recovery time.

To be more specific, a tantrum happens when a child is:

  • Frustrated with not getting what they want
  • Not able to do what they want
  • Not able to properly communicate

A child might stop a tantrum after the following responses:

  • Being comforted by a parent or caregiver
  • Being given what he/she wants (although not an ideal strategy)
  • Being ignored and giving up on his/her own

When a child throws a tantrum, they are aware and in control of their actions and can adjust the level of their tantrum based on the response they receive from a parent or adult. Tantrums can be managed using behavioural strategies. 

The causes of meltdowns are entirely different. Meltdowns are triggered by sensory overload, and they can exhibit a few distinct characteristics.

Meltdown symptoms may:

  • Start with pre-meltdown signs which can be verbal or physical behaviors that signal an imminent meltdown
  • Be caused by overstimulation or an undesirable sensory input
  • It is not limited to young children and can also happen to teens and adults
  • Happen with or without an audience
  • Last longer than tantrums

When you know the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, you can apply the right strategies.

What to do in the case of a meltdown:

Consider what kind of toys and or activities your child likes. 

  • Can this item help stop or lessen a meltdown?
  • Does this item have the texture/shape/color my child likes?

Based on the answers to your questions, here are some items that might help

  • Fidget toys 
  • Sensory objects (kinetic sand, play putty, slime, stress ball)
  • Sunglasses
  • Noise-cancelling headphones
  • Favorite music
  • Bubbles
  • Weighted vest
  • Weighted stuff toy
  • Favorite toy
  • Puzzles
  • Musical instrument (whistle, harmonica)

If the child is already having a meltdown, try this:

Provide a diversion or alternative activity in line with what you know your child likes, feel soothing or enjoys. Play with soft toys, play with kinetic sand, or squeeze a stress ball to engage them in a sensory activity.

Provide structure and predictability to the child’s environment with visual aids, like visual schedules and social stories. Visual supports can help them focus and understand what’s going on.

With my own children, I have also used television, YouTube, and digital games. If your child is in a meltdown and they are not responding to standard behavioural calming cues or techniques then how do we move them away from the stressor. Consider what works for your child for each unique situation. If it’s not a tantrum the technology offered will not be considered a reward but a thoughtful caring gesture that helps your child recoup and recover. Following the recovery you can apply all of your best parenting techniques.

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