Handling Meltdowns

Meltdowns are emotional outbursts that happen when children (or adults) are overwhelmed by feelings and they come out in inappropriate ways. They are sometimes referred to as tantrums or blowups and can be very stressful for everyone involved. An understanding of what happens during a meltdown and how to help children behave better can decrease meltdowns or at least make them less intense. Calming the meltdown rather than trying to fix the cause is the fastest and most effective way to stop and prevent meltdowns.

Children have meltdowns for lots of reasons. These include being angry, scared, embarrassed, tired, hungry, or in other states of physical or emotional discomfort. It is rare for young children to misbehave for revenge or to annoy people because they lack the ability to plan and understand others’ reactions. Meltdowns usually are a sign children are under more distress than they can handle. Meltdowns happen even though children really are doing the best they can to behave in the situation. They just do not have the ability to behave better when upset or under stress. However, children need to learn to cope better to decrease meltdowns.

Meltdowns are challenging for us because they can be embarrassing and children can do and say things that are hurtful. Sometimes meltdowns are confusing because we do not know what set them off. They can be scary because of their intensity. Children become very hard to manage during meltdowns. Reason simply does not get through to them. Intense emotions stop the brain from working properly. So, the ability to follow reason or use self-control decreases dramatically during meltdowns. Discipline often does not work because fear of consequences or caregivers’ disapproval intensifies the distress. Or, children may be too upset to care about the consequences in the moment. Harsh discipline sometimes scares a child into stopping the meltdown in the moment, but is not an effective long-term solution.

The priority during meltdowns is to help children calm down. After children are calm, they can learn from instruction, reason, or discipline. This is not giving in to children, it is training them to avoid meltdowns in the future. Children are still responsible for their behavior. Although it can test our patience, the most productive strategy is to wait until children are calm enough to think clearly so they can learn what they need to do differently next time.

Calming children is easier earlier in the meltdown. So, it is helpful to know and watch for warning signs that children are about to meltdown. We might notice a change in breathing, voice, facial expression, or other body language. There might be things that children say when starting to have a meltdown. As soon as the meltdown is recognized, we can start the calming process to get things back on track.

Calming children during meltdowns requires soothing and what works for one child might not work for others. Also, what works for a child at one age or in one situation might not work in others. What does tend to help all children is when we stay calm and kind, even though it is hard. Practicing calming strategies together shows children what we want them to do, but it also helps us stay calm. Using a soft voice, slow movements, not grabbing a child, and having a sympathetic expression helps calm children as well as keeping us calm.

Calming activities include a cool cloth on the face, long slow deep breaths, tensing and relaxing muscles, and holding a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. Validating, acknowledging how the child feels, can be very helpful. Older children might benefit from soothing and reassuring words from a caregiver. Younger children might appreciate being held or rocked. However, for some children a hug is calming, but others might be upset by being held. Similarly, some children calm down using intense physical activity, but others are ramped up by it. We know calming strategies are working when we see children start to relax and return to their usual behavior.

It is best to wait until children are fully calm to address the meltdown or what led up to it. At that point, a wonderful way to start the conversation is by telling children we know they had feelings that were too big to control and that we want to help them learn how to deal with big feelings. Then we can describe appropriate ways to express emotions and make requests. This also is the time for helping children face the situation that caused the meltdown or accept the consequence of their behavior during the meltdown. This might involve trying to make right any harm or damage they caused during the meltdown.

Repeating this process during each meltdown teaches children how to handle intense emotions appropriately, decreasing the likelihood and intensity of future meltdowns. It takes time to learn this skill, just like any other skill. Also, as children’s brains mature, they have an increased ability to use self-control to avoid meltdowns. So, although it is a gradual process, it will get better!