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How to manage meltdowns

May 09, 20237 min read

If you’re a parent or caregiver of an autistic or neurodivergent child, you know that meltdowns happen. It can be a frustrating experience for the child but also for other people who are around and involved.

And while it may be difficult to see at first, meltdowns can actually serve as opportunities to better understand your child and connect more deeply to them. Continue reading to learn how to become less reactive and more responsive to ease the overwhelm and frustrations of meltdowns.

What are meltdowns?

Many people think that meltdowns and tantrums are the same thing. While they can look similar, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Tantrums are typically motivated by a specific want or need for something. A child having a tantrum may yell or cry or act out physically in order to get what they want. 

A classic example of a tantrum is when a child cries because they want candy or ice cream. They scream and yell but as soon as they get their treat, the tears suddenly disappear and they have a big smile on their face.

When a child has a meltdown, on the other hand, they do not have that same sense of control. Meltdowns are uncontrollable responses to feeling overwhelmed. 

They are a sign of distress and dysregulation. It’s important to remember that your child is not having a meltdown on purpose to act out or be “bad,” even though it might seem that way. 

Why do meltdowns occur? 

Meltdowns are often the result of sensory overload, but they can be caused by many different stimuli. 

Autistic and neurodivergent kids tend to be highly sensitive to their surroundings and can experience physical pain when they hear loud noises or wear clothes with itchy fabric. 

Some kids have a hard time ignoring or adapting to things like the buzzing or flickering of fluorescent lights or the sound of someone chewing food. 

In addition to outside stimulation, neurodivergent kids also tend to struggle with interoception, which is the ability to identify and respond to what’s going on inside the body. They may have difficulty knowing when they’re hungry, thirsty, hot, or cold, which can impact their behaviors and reactions. 

popsicles melting

Anticipate a meltdown

Many of the parents I work with come to me because they want solutions for their kids’ troubling behaviors. They are often overwhelmed, stressed, and unsure of what to do. Recently one mom shared with me that she just “wants to stop drowning.”

And although it may seem like addressing behaviors is the best place to start, we actually need to dive deeper and explore what’s below the surface.   

When we’re able to approach a child’s meltdowns with openness and curiosity, we are better able to support them and provide the sense of safety and security that they need to regulate and regain their sense of control.

Before a child has a meltdown, they often show signs that they are distressed and their nervous system is moving into a fight or flight response. 

While these signs vary from person to person, learning to identify those first signals and taking action can help prevent meltdowns. You can even keep a journal to look for patterns. At the first signs of distress, try the following:

  • Remove potential triggers

  • Identify and validate your child’s emotions

  • Help them cope in ways that feel best for them

  • Remain calm yourself

  • Offer them 2-3 choices to help redirect their attention (ex. They can choose to go for a walk, get a fidget toy, or yell into a pillow)

How to support your child during a meltdown

One of the best things you can do when your child has a meltdown is to regulate yourself and your own nervous system. Of course, you should first make sure that your child is safe and, if possible, removed from the overwhelming situation or stimulus. 

Your ability to self-regulate plays a big role in your child’s meltdowns. Since they lack control in those moments, they need you and your support to help them through it. When both the parent and child are dysregulated, it can lead to further frustration on both sides.

This isn’t meant to blame or shame anyone who struggles to stay regulated during their child’s meltdowns. It’s normal and even expected for you to feel that way. There are multiple reasons for why your child’s meltdowns can cause you dysregulation and overwhelm:

  1. You are naturally wired for connection to your kids. When they are distressed, it can cause a stress response for you internally. 

  2. If you are neurodivergent yourself and experience sensory overload, you can be triggered by the same sensory stimulus or by your child’s reactions.

  3. Feelings of hopelessness are common for parents. When you try repeatedly to help but nothing seems to work, it can lead to overwhelm and frustration.

  4. You feel a sense of shame or embarrassment for how your child is viewed in public.

  5. You have other children and responsibilities that also demand your attention and presence.

  6. When you can’t figure out what causes your child’s meltdowns, you may become fearful that one could happen at any moment and start to avoid certain places and situations.

The more you can acknowledge your own feelings and emotions that come up when your child melts down, the easier it will become for you to acknowledge their feelings and emotions.

When you’re able to be present with your child and respond compassionately, you can keep the situation from escalating while modeling regulation skills that they can eventually learn and apply.

The next time you’re with your child during a meltdown, remind yourself that it can be an opportunity for you to better understand them and their perceptions of the world. 

Do your best to self-regulate so you can get radically curious about what’s happening below the surface. And have compassion for yourself in the moments you don’t. We’re not aiming for perfection. 

popsicles melting

Try the following to bring more ease to the process:

  • Practice self-regulation in micromoments. Take a few seconds or minutes each day to be present, practice deep breathing, and be in touch with your emotions. It’s nearly impossible to learn anything when your system is in fight-or-flight, so you’ll have better success if you build these skills when you’re calm and regulated.

  • Become a detective. Get really curious about what your child is experiencing and why. Keep a journal or use the notes in your phone to track what’s happening before and during a meltdown and look for patterns to help you better understand what’s going on. Don’t expect to find all the answers overnight. The more compassionate you can be, the less reactionary you will become over time. 

  • Seek connection. What can you do in those moments to reassure your child that you are there for them and they're safe? It is critical that you offer them what they need and not make any assumptions. Do they prefer hugs and touch or does that agitate them further? Do they need spaciousness or do they like having you close by? Do they want you to talk to them or do they need quiet? Are you saying things that calm them down or create further frustration?

  • Find strength in the repair. Mistakes will happen. It's how you respond and repair those mistakes that will lead to increased resilience for your kids and improvement over time.

    Know that you won't get it right the first time or even the tenth time. I know that can be hard to hear because of course you want to help your child and make them feel better as soon as possible. The more you can be comfortable in the discomfort and practice your own regulation, the easier it will be navigate the tough moments.

    You don't have to go through this alone! To learn more about managing meltdowns and becoming less reactive with your neurodivergent kids, book a free call with me here. And be sure to follow @themodernspectrum on Instagram for more empowered neurodivergent parenting content.

Christine Binko is a Neurodivergent Empowered Parenting Coach and founder of The Modern Spectrum.

Christine Binko

Christine Binko is a Neurodivergent Empowered Parenting Coach and founder of The Modern Spectrum.

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