Understanding Your Child's Meltdowns
If you’ve ever experienced a child having a meltdown, it can seem destructive, out of control and an overreaction to something small. Meltdowns can be draining for you and your child and can sometimes leave you feeling helpless and confused.
A lot of the time meltdowns are a result of your child being dysregulated, which means they are unable to appropriately manage their emotions. Outbursts can be a result of children not being able to communicate or appropriately express what is making them feel uncomfortable or upset.
Before the meltdown
It is important to recognise what affects your child’s mood so you can identify the warning signs and pre-empt what may lead to a meltdown. By noticing certain environments, times and situations, you can begin to incorporate strategies that will help them recentre. This might include giving them a snack before they get too hungry, playing their favourite song on the way to the shops, or letting them have a quick run around before they get in the car for a long drive.
During the meltdown
If and when a meltdown occurs, there are a couple of things you can do to make sure you and the child are safe, and to help them through it.
Avoid Negotiating: When a child is in the midst of a meltdown, reasoning with them or bribing them will not be productive for either of you. It is important to recognise that in this situation, the child’s nervous system is in fight or flight mode, meaning they are unable to think logically. (Remember – this is not your child’s fault! Our bodies are wired for our frontal lobes to switch off during fight or flight – It happens to us all).
Keep your Cool: It is important to not get mad when your child is having a meltdown as they are likely unable to control their emotions. By getting angry, you will escalate their emotions and heighten the situation. Also, by de-valuing their experience, it may make them feel like there is something wrong or bad about their natural emotions. As hard as it may be, it is important to stay calm and grounded for your child, so when they come out of their meltdown, they can meet you at your level of calm.
Ride the Wave of the Meltdown: It is important to see the meltdown through to the end, as it is the body’s way of making sense of their emotions. Stopping this process mid-way can sometimes be disorientating. Just make sure your child is in a safe space where they will not hurt themselves or others.
After the meltdown
It is important to talk to your child after these experiences. Validate their feelings and show an understanding. For example, you could say “I can see that you were really upset, and your body didn’t seem happy.” If the tantrum was due to a specific incident, help them to problem solve through the situation and prompt them to learn from that experience.
This may all be easier said than done, and sometimes your child may be using negative behaviour instrumentally, i.e. to get something they want. It is important to recognise the difference between instrumental behaviour and dysregulation. Dysregulation will look different for every child, but some key signs may be:
· If their behaviours and emotions are inappropriate for the context. If your child is intensely upset or overly hyperactive, to an extent that is disproportionate to the situation, they may be having difficulty self-regulating.
· If they have difficulty focusing attention. This may be because your child’s brain and nervous system is so preoccupied with trying to process overwhelming sensations from their environment that they are unable to focus.
· If they seem highly sensitive to certain sensations such as noises, light, or the texture/feel of certain materials.
It will take time to work out what your child is sensitive to and what may trigger a meltdown for them. Once you work with your child to identify this, you can help support them to calm their little bodies.
By Becky Pimentel, Occupational Therapy Student