Meltdowns are not just for toddlers. Older children, teenagers and adults also have them when our “Stress Cup” is full. Meltdowns are one of the most common concerns for the children and families who I support at my clinic, Everlief Child Psychology. In this article we will look at how to prevent meltdowns in children of all ages.
What is a Meltdown?
A meltdown happens when someone is overwhelmed. Contributing factors can include tiredeness, sensory issues and too much social interaction. A meltdown may result in shut down, withdrawn behaviour, “freezing”, or angry outbursts.
Emotional outbursts of anger accompanying a meltdown may involve angry words or angry actions like kicking things or throwing possessions around.
The person having a meltdown may sob, sometimes for hours, whilst feeling stuck and overwhelmed.
Though it will eventually end, it will happen again very soon if the person’s stress cup remains full.
The video below is a brilliant summary of how meltdowns feel. Meltdowns are not exclusive to autistic people.
Meltdowns can be occasional extremes when the balance is temporarily lost with a child’s wellbeing and/or family life. They can also become a way of life; regular events that have a massive impact on family life and if not careful, can become accepted as the “normal” way of life.
If the latter applies to you, it is important to recognize that life needs to change, and to get some professional help (start with your GP if you are unsure where to turn). However meltdowns feature in your family’s life, the information below will be relevant for you.
What Triggers a Meltdown?
Meltdown triggers can include the following:
- Time pressure
- Too much choice
- Sensory overstimulation (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste)
- General overwhelm
In my clinic, Everlief, the most common time of day for our families to experience a child having a meltdown is after school. It often happens when children have not eaten or drunk adequately at school. Their body is running on empty and cannot cope with any further demands until it is fed and rested.
The greater the social demands, academic demands and sensory overwhelm from school, generally the bigger the meltdown will be.
In our family, meltdowns tend to occur in the mornings, when we are under time pressure and everyone’s demands are competing (including three cats and a dog). Time pressure can trigger meltdowns at any time of day though, particularly when tiredness is also a factor.
How to Prevent Meltdowns
When you think about how to prevent meltdowns for your child, don’t think about it in the context of “good behavior” or “bad behavior”. Meltdowns are a sign that your child is having a hard time. They are not in control. Instead, think about what you need to do to help regulate your child, as they can’t do this for themselves yet.
Here are some important things you can do to prevent regular meltdowns.
1. Understand and Manage the Triggers
Your first step in dealing the current situation is to figure out what triggers the meltdowns. This can be complex if there are many small triggers which have built up. Some signs can be difficult to spot – particularly in the case of sensory overload. Your child may hear, see or smell something that you haven’t even noticed, but they may find overwhelming.
You may have an idea of potential triggers, but to get more clarity I recommend using something called an ABC chart.
ABC stands for antecedent, behaviour, consequence.
In other words, what was going on leading up to the meltdown, what happened during the meltdown, and what happened afterwards? The antecedent is the most important part to understand, but all areas of your ABC chart will give you helpful clues to create positive change.
Understanding the triggers can help you avoid difficult situations in the future.
For example, a family I worked with recently did an ABC chart to understand their 8 year old daughter’s meltdowns. As we talked it through they realised that although their daughter could manage to attend a recent family barbecue for up to two hours, beyond this she became overwhelmed and began to have a meltdown.
This helped the girl’s parents to recognise their daughter’s limits and prevent future meltdowns. Young children will not be able to understand or control their own limits, and will need specific support from you.
2. Regulate Yourself
If your emotions are not regulated when your child is stressed, you risk escalating rather than calming them. This can lead to power struggles, shouting, and further dysregulation for you both.
It can be especially hard to feel calm when the meltdown is happening in a public place. You may feel the added pressures of shame and embarrassment from people watching. Public meltdowns are extra challenging if you feel trapped in the situation, e.g. if you are in a grocery store with a trolley full of shopping and can’t get your child to a quieter place.
You can only do your best. We are all human, and most parents have had to deal with a child’s meltdown at one stage or other. Even if it feels like you are being judged negatively, you may be surprised. If you can, try to focus solely on your child and try to remember it’s your job to regulate them.
In the moment, if you do not feel you can calm and contain your child’s emotions, step away for a few seconds. Slow your breathing down. Ensure your breaths go deep into your belly. Soften your shoulders, stomach, jaw, and any other areas where you feel tension.
Take a look at my article called 5 Quick Tips For Staying Calm With Your Child for more guidance.
3. Invest in Lifestyle Changes
A well balanced lifestyle will ensure your child faces fewer meltdown triggers in the first place. They will get enough rest, eat well and regularly, and exercise to manage stress levels.
The same applies to you. Focus on ensuring you are looking after yourself (enough sleep, paying attention to nutrition, social contact and exercise).
You will find practical steps to follow in my guide called Child Mental Health: The Lifestyle Connection.
4. Help Your Child Balance their Energy Levels
Meltdowns are not always caused by one overwhelming situation. More commonly, they happen when many little things add up, causing your child’s stress cup to overflow with too much input. In other words, the nervous system cannot handle any more stress, and your child becomes dysregulated by intense emotions.
Your child needs to learn to manage their energy for the sake of their mental health. It’s not healthy to feel regularly on the edge of overwhelm or meltdown.
The Energy Accounting method was developed by eminent psychologist Professor Tony Attwood to help autistic people, but it is useful for everyone.
The method is simple. Make a list of events or activities which are a “withdrawal” for your child. In other words, what contributes to a meltdown? This might include sensory input, social situations, extracurricular activities or academic tasks, to name a few. Now, with your child, rate them out of 10 in terms of how much they contribute to a meltdown. Each score is written as a minus number.
Next make a list of events and activities which are a “deposit” in the energy bank for your child. These are things which help your child feel balanced or rested. They help to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.
Now, work with your child each day. Plan to ensure that the score for deposits always outweighs the score for withdrawals, so that your child’s Energy Bank always adds up to more than zero.
5. Have a Clear Action Plan to Nip Meltdowns in the Bud
Meltdowns can be an overwhelming experience for your child, for you, and for siblings or other family members. If you have a clear plan developed in advance, you will feel more in control next time and you will be less reactive.
Work with your child on this one. What helps when they are starting to have a meltdown? Make a visual poster to help you remember. Visual aids are a powerful tool in helping you and your child with emotional regulation. When emotions are heightened we find it harder to think rationally, so having a visual guide helps us take instant positive action.
Here are some examples:
- A designated safe space to go to.
- Slow, deep breaths with your child to calm the nervous system.
- Soothing sensory experiences unique to your child e.g. a pot of rice scented with lavender oil, a bubble machine, a swing.
- Removing overwhelming sensory input e.g. use of ear defenders, moving into a darker room.
- Removing all demands e.g. not asking any questions or making requests or expecting conversation.
- Eating an energy-dense food e.g flapjack to raise blood sugar.
- Relaxation techniques such as progressive muscular relaxation.
Here’s an example for a fictional child, 12 year-old Jacob.
Start to use your plan immediately when your child shows the first signs of distress.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the Best method For Dealing With Regular Meltdowns?
Prevention is the absolute best way to deal with meltdowns. Prevention involves understanding and managing the triggers, ensuring your child has a balanced lifestyle and having a clear action plan to nip a meltdown in the bud.
Meltdowns are exhausting and draining for all family members. Most importantly though, they can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem. Meltdowns are not inevitable, so act now to create a different path for your child.
If your child is of primary-school age, you will also find more information about meltdowns in the book I co-wrote with five of my Everlief colleagues, Brighter Futures.
Meltdowns in older children could be a warning sign that a child is in regular distress. If they are happening regularly (once a week or more), and particularly if they involve physical aggression, you should seek help via your doctor or school.
How Do You Stop a Child’s Meltdown?
When someone is having a meltdown, make sure you are calm. If not, take time to regulate yourself first. If you have not already created a written meltdown plan with your child, focus on getting them to a quiet place free of overwhelming sensory input. Sit quietly with them. Encourage slow, deep breathing.
What Triggers a Meltdown?
A meltdown is triggered when the nervous system has more input than it can cope with. Emotional meltdowns are the nervous system’s way of communicating, “I have reached my limit.” Common triggers include sensory items such as loud noises, bright lights or strong smells, or too much social interaction.
What’s the Difference Between a Meltdown and a Temper Tantrum?
Temper tantrums may be triggered when a child wants something they can’t have, or when they face an unexpected change of plans. Dominant emotions may be frustration and anger.
Meltdowns are caused by an overwhelmed nervous system, involving factors such as too much sensory input. Dominant emotions may be overwhelm or panic, but meltdowns can also involve frustration and anger.
Both tantrums and meltdowns involve loss of control of emotions. Both require a calm, empathetic approach.
Can You Have a Meltdown Without Autism?
Yes. Autistic meltdowns are more common because autistic brains are more sensitive to overwhelm. For example, an autistic person will generally notice more sensory information, that neurotypical brains may filter out. But anyone can have a meltdown if their nervous system gets overwhelmed.
Autism meltdowns are not fundamentally different from “neurotypical meltdowns”.
What is an ADHD Meltdown?
People with ADHD may be susceptible to meltdowns because of difficulty staying focused, managing emotions or controlling impulses. These things take greater effort for people with ADHD and therefore they can cause the nervous system to become overwhelmed.
How Long Do Meltdowns Last?
Meltdowns can last anything from a few minutes to several hours. It depends how overwhelmed the person was when the meltdown was triggered. It also depends on other factors like amount of sensory input, amount of sleep, and if they have eaten a good meal/have balanced blood sugar.
What’s the Difference Between a Breakdown and a Meltdown?
Both involve a loss of control and intense overwhelm. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, a meltdown is usually considered to last only minutes or hours, whereas a breakdown can last weeks, months or years.
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.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.