Emotional Meltdowns in Children: Your Practical Guide by a Child Psychologist

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

We are all human and none of us get it right 100% of the time. If your child has a meltdown or outburst, you are not a bad parent.

There may have been nothing you could have done to prevent it. It may have been caused by an unexpected change or overwhelming sensory input, or many other things.

However, there are several actions you can avoid in order to better contain and manage your child’s strong emotions.

I’m Dr Lucy Russell and I’m a UK child clinical psychologist with more than twenty years of experience in the National Health Service and private practice. Let me take you through some practical steps for handling emotional meltdowns in children.

Child Meltdowns: Aim For Diffusion

It’s important to diffuse and help your child regulate the meltdown as quickly as possible, and it’s vital to try to regulate your own strong feelings.

You are teaching your child to calm themselves and acting as a role model in the long run.

There are certain actions that will have the opposite effect, which I will outline below.

This article will help if your child has a meltdown or outburst and it complements my previous article on how to prevent meltdowns.

First, let’s briefly cover a few basics…

a dad and daughter learning together outdoors using a whiteboard

What Causes Emotional Meltdowns or Outbursts?

Emotional meltdowns are a normal part of child development in young kids.

They are a sign that young children are developing likes and dislikes, and learning to express themselves.

Beyond toddler tantrums, meltdowns and outbursts are also common in the pre-school years and early school life, particularly for autistic children or children with other special needs.

Causes include:

  • Lack of appropriate language skills to express a need or want.
  • Sensory overwhelm leading to a sensory meltdown.
  • Expectations not meeting reality, or sudden unexpected changes.
  • Adjusting to significant life changes such as divorce or bereavement.
  • Traumatic experiences.
  • Chronic lack of sleep.

Your child’s meltdowns are simply a sign that the emotion centre of the brain has taken over from the under-developed “thinking part” of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex.

Even in older kids, emotions such as fear or frustration can be so large that they flood the nervous system.

It then triggers a “fight, flight or freeze” response.

infographic: six causes of emotional meltdowns

What is the Difference Between A Meltdown And An Outburst?

Outbursts (also referred to as tantrums) are not the same as meltdowns.

Meltdowns are a full bodily reaction to the nervous system becoming overwhelmed.

In a meltdown, your child may show anger or extreme frustration, but in their extreme distress you may also see them “shutting down” or zoning out.

The nervous system is so overwhelmed that it shuts down.

Actions to Avoid When Your Child Has a Meltdown

Emotional outbursts or angry outbursts often occur when a child doesn’t have the language skills to express themselves.

Children having an outburst are generally thought to have more control over their behaviour than children having a meltdown.

They do not have full control though, and an outburst can easily spiral into a meltdown.

Are Child Meltdowns Normal?

Meltdowns are normal in children of preschool and infant school (kindergarten) age.

However, if your child’s tantrums or meltdowns seem more magnified than other children their age or more frequent, this could be a red flag that there is something going on under the surface.

In older kids, you should see a decrease in frequency and intensity in meltdowns with age. If you are concerned, it’s a good idea to keep a diary of your child’s behavior.

If your child’s meltdowns or outbursts are significantly impacting family life or their daily life at school, you need to understand the root cause.

Your child may require an assessment by a health professional.


Actions to Avoid When Your Child Has A Meltdown or Outburst

1. Don’t Ask Questions

Your child is in “fight or flight” and the brain is focused on survival. Rational thinking is not possible in this state. Questions nearly always further escalate the fight or flight response. This is the opposite of what you’re aiming for!

The best way to communicate with your child is with simple instructions or statements using a soft, soothing tone. For example:

“I’m going to stay right here with you.”

“We’re going to move away from this crowded place.”

“Copy my slow breathing.”

2. Don’t Say “Calm Down”

Your child can’t calm down without your help.

Therefore the phrase often heightens emotion even further, because your child will be frustrated by your suggestion.

managing meltdowns and outbursts importance of body language

Next time your child’s emotions are heightened, try some alternative phrases such as:

  • “I’m sorry.” (that things are tough for you)
  • “I’m going to help you.”
  • “Let’s sit down for a minute.”

Find some phrases that work for your child and keep them up your sleeve for future use.

3. Don’t Use Threatening Body Language

Don’t square up or get too close to your child’s face.

Try to be non-threatening in your demeanour.

Keep a metre or so apart, soften your shoulders and relax your facial muscles. (I know – this is not easy!)

Try to avoid a power struggle at all costs.

If your child’s struggles are triggering big emotions for you and you don’t feel in control, step away and find a safe place for a few moments where you can self-regulate.

Take some slow, deep breaths.

The breaths should go deep into the diaphragm and be at least 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out.

This will trigger your parasympathetic nervous system – also known as the “rest and digest” state, when the body feels calm.

Of course, if you are in a public place such as the grocery store or school playground, it is much more challenging to step away and take a few moments for yourself.

During a public tantrum or meltdown, if there is another adult with you who is well regulated, hand over to them while you look after you own needs.

If not:

  • Try to focus on your child and not think about other people around who may be judging you. We have all been there. Most people just feel empathy for you.
  • Focus on containing your child as swiftly as possible. If you can move them to a safe space that is less overwhelming for them, do. If not, try the following strategies:
    • Use soothing phrases like: “I’m here, it’s okay, we are together.” Repeat them in a rhythmic manner.
    • Use touch if you know this helps your child feel calm e.g. hand massage, a firm hug.
    • With older children, encourage them to slow their breathing. Slow your own breathing down and ask them to follow.
a dad and son on the grass hugging

4. Don’t Set Consequences In The Moment

A consequence is fair (if it is in proportion) if a child has broken a family rule.

But wait until later when everyone is calm, or you risk an unwanted escalation rather than de-escalation.

Remember your child cannot rationalise whilst their emotions are at peak arousal.

The fight or flight response is telling them to fight you or run away.

5. Don’t Give Punishments

Consequences and punishments are not the same.

Consequences (e.g. for verbal abuse or causing damage) are non-shaming and aimed at helping a child learn/reflect.

6 Year Old Emotional Meltdowns: Case Study – Jasper

Jasper is a 6-year-old with a creative and sensitive personality. He enjoys painting and building imaginative worlds with his toys.

However, his sensitivity also makes him prone to emotional meltdowns.

Triggers often include abrupt changes in plans or sensory overstimulation, such as loud noises or bright lights.

Recognizing Jasper’s specific needs, his parents decided to implement targeted strategies.

The first step was creating an emotional “safe space” at home, equipped with comforting items including his plush toys and a weighted blanket.

When a meltdown occurred, his parents would gently guide him to this space, allowing him to feel more contained emotionally without the need for words or questions.

His parents also practiced co-regulation. Before interacting with Jasper during a meltdown, they would take a moment to center themselves.

They consciously relaxed their shoulders, took slow breaths, and grounded themselves emotionally. This helped them to be more present and effective in assisting Jasper through his episodes.

The emphasis on emotional containment over verbal questions or commands, coupled with the parents’ self-regulation techniques, made a significant difference.

Over time, Jasper began to better understand his emotions and how to cope with them.

His parents also found that their own stress levels decreased as they became more skilled in guiding Jasper through his meltdowns.

Meltdown, Self-Regulation and Co-Regulation

I have already mentioned self-regulation and co-regulation. Both are vital in preventing and managing meltdowns and outbursts effectively.

But what are self-regulation and co-regulation?

I love this video by ACF which explains the two terms simply. This video is particularly great if you’re managing teenage meltdowns.

YouTube video

How to Deal With 10 Year-Old Meltdowns: Case Study – Malik

Malik, a 10-year-old passionate about science and technology, often finds himself overwhelmed by social interactions and academic expectations. This overwhelming feeling frequently leads to emotional meltdowns.

Traditional calming phrases or questions from his parents seemed to exacerbate the situation.

Malik’s parents decided to try a calming box. These are small, portable boxes filled with various objects, such as stress balls, noise-cancelling headphones, and relaxing fragrances.

Malik assembled the items for his calming box with help from his mum.

Whenever Malik felt a meltdown approaching, he could pick up his calming box and use different objects to calm himself. This gave him a non-verbal outlet to manage and contain his emotions.

His parents also collaborated with Malik to develop a “safe word,” a unique phrase that he could use to signal a need for space or a break. This empowered Malik to take control of his emotional state and gave his parents immediate insight into how he was feeling.

The safe word became a non-confrontational way to defuse escalating situations.

Malik’s parents realised the importance of self-regulation. Before intervening, they’d pause to relax their shoulders and breathe deeply. This allowed them to offer a calming presence for Malik, without introducing additional stress.

The outcomes were encouraging. Malik’s episodes decreased in both frequency and severity, and the calming box and safe word became valuable resources.

Watch Your Expectations When Your Child Has a Meltdown or Outburst

Even older teenage children’s brains are not fully developed and their emotion control is not as good as an adult’s.

This will improve over time, and with your guidance.

As you child’s brain matures, they will become skilled enough to calm themselves without help, often before they reach the level of an outburst or meltdown.

You can read more tips here on staying calm when your child has a meltdown or outburst.

You can also read about children brain development in my article: Understanding Brain Development In Children.

8 Year Old Emotional Meltdowns: Case Study – Lara

Lara is an 8 year old autistic child. She struggles to contain her emotions when events happen which are not as she has expected. This is made worse when she is in a busy environment and experiences sensory overload.

Lara was at a busy park with her mum, Louise. Lara had not had enough sleep the night before, so her nervous system was stretched.

She had begin to find the noisy park overwhelming and was showing signs of frustration, such as refusing to keep her hat on in the hot sunshine.

Louise decided that they would have a quick ice cream before heading home. However, Lara always has a vanilla cone with strawberry sauce, and the ice cream van had run out of strawberry sauce.

She began to have a meltdown.

As Lara is prone to epic meltdowns, Louise knew she had to take action to prevent the meltdown escalating.

As a first step, Louise took Lara away from the ice cream van and found a quiet spot behind a tree.

She didn’t have anyone to help her with Lara, so she let Lara scream and cry for a couple of minutes whilst she slowed her own breathing and relaxed her shoulders.

managing a meltdown or outburst firm hug: mum and daughter

Next, Louise said “It’s okay, I’m here”, in a soothing tone of voice, close to Lara’s ear. She repeated this phrase over and over.

She gave Lara a long, firm hug, knowing that Lara finds firm touch very soothing for her nervous system.

Louise knew that consequences would not help in this situation, as Lara had simply lost control of her emotions. They stayed by the tree until Lara stopped crying and her breathing was slow and regular.

Louise promised they would find another ice cream or a different treat later that day. Then they slowly made their way home, with Lara falling asleep in the car as she was so exhausted.

Summary: How to Deal With Meltdowns or Outbursts

If you child has frequent meltdowns or outbursts, it’s vital that you plan strategies in advance to manage them.

You need to help your child contain their big feelings, because they cannot yet self-regulate.

You need both preventative strategies and “in the moment” strategies.

Above all else, work on ensuring you feel regulated yourself. If your own emotions escalate, you will not be in a position to help your child with theirs.

Regular emotional meltdowns may be a sign of sensory processing disorder, autism, ADHD or another neurodevelopmental condition.

You may need professional help to identify and support your child’s unmet needs.

This kind of help is often provided by a clinical psychologist, generally alongside other health professionals such as occupational therapists.

Your family doctor should be your first port of call to discuss your concerns.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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