Nothing can make a parent or caregiver feel more powerless than a child experiencing meltdowns. The irrationality and tears can become overwhelming for parents, especially if in public. If a child experiences meltdowns in public, parents or caregivers may feel embarrassed and feel like failures because they cannot take control of the situation.
Do not fear or think that you are unfit. Meltdowns are something every child will encounter as they develop and learn more about the world. Meltdowns often do not reflect parenting styles or depict who you are as a parent. It instead reflects the nature of what may be going on in the present moment. What’s important is understanding the nature of the meltdown, supporting your child during a one, and knowing what tools are needed when experiencing a meltdown.
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Are Meltdowns the same as tantrums?
As a parent/caregiver, tantrums and meltdowns are among the most significant challenges you will face. They are hard to understand, hard to prevent, and hard to respond effectively to when it is happening. When these meltdowns occur past the developmentally expected age (these behaviors are common in young children, but tend to decrease in frequency and intensity as they get older), they can become more of a challenge.
Tantrums are “unpleasant and disruptive behaviors or emotional outbursts. They often occur in response to unmet needs or desires. Tantrums are more likely to occur in younger children or others who cannot express their needs or control their emotions when they are frustrated.” The child will experience short episodes of extreme, unpleasant, and sometimes aggressive behaviors in response to frustration or anger. The actions are usually not proportionate to the problem. Behaviors typically include flailing, hitting, crying, screaming, becoming limp, throwing items, pushing, or biting.
Meltdowns may seem similar to a tantrum, but there is a difference that is taking place internally. Meltdowns are emotional outbursts that happen when children are overwhelmed by intense feelings manifested in inappropriate ways. It is a reaction to a child/teenager trying to process too much sensory input all at once. It’s the result of a child becoming so emotionally overwhelmed; they simply can’t hold it together. At this point, they are experiencing sensory overload.
The main difference between tantrums and meltdowns is that tantrums have a purpose, and meltdowns result from sensory overload. With tantrums, the inappropriate behavior stops if the need is met or if the tantrum is ignored. On the other hand, meltdowns stop when the child wears themselves out until they are fatigued or the sensory overload has decreased.
Why do children experience meltdowns?
As mentioned before, meltdowns often arise as a result of a child having a sensory overload. There is too much information for the child’s brain to process and understand. This may not be the case for every child because other factors, such as a child’s temperament, will play a role in how he/she can process overstimulation.
Meltdowns can occur in children for many reasons. It can be anything from your child feeling angry, scared, embarrassed, tired, hungry, to them being in a state of physical or emotional discomfort. It is rare for young children to misbehave or seek revenge because they lack the ability to plan and understand others’ reactions due to their developmental stage. Meltdowns are usually a sign that your child is under a great deal of stress, and they are not capable of handling and coping with these intense emotions.
Possible underlying causes for Meltdowns
From birth through adolescence, a child’s mind goes through many developmental changes that are hard to process and understand. For example, as a child grows, they begin to experiences feelings of frustrations and anger. They can express such intense emotions as a challenging behavior because they do not yet know how to explain or even understand what they are feeling. Additionally, what they may be experiencing can be so overwhelming that they often cannot control how they respond because of brain overload.
Parents can feel helpless in the face of a meltdown because nothing they say or do seems to help. Despite meltdowns being hard to understand and hard to control in the moment, having a better understanding of why they may be occurring can bring some relief and help parents better manage. Here are some underlying causes for why meltdowns may occur:
Poor emotional regulation:
Most children learn how to and can regulate their emotions through modeling (looking at how the parent reacts in stressful situations). But many factors may contribute to why a child may have difficulty controlling their emotions. Parenting styles and your child’s temperament are two examples to consider because both will impact how your child can process and regulate their emotions. The inability to control one’s emotions can sometimes lead to frustration and manifest itself as a meltdown.
Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD):
If your child is experiencing many meltdowns, then there may be a possibility that your child may have ADHD. Children with ADHD lack focus, an inability to complete work, and have difficulty tolerating boredom, among other symptoms. As a result, this can contribute to the escalation of a meltdown. Please, however, keep in mind that this is a disorder that is easily misdiagnosed in children. Be diligent in doing your research.
Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD):
If your child is experiencing meltdowns that are severe and long-lasting, out of proportion, and occurs three or more times a week, then your child may have DMDD. Between meltdowns, your child is irritable and angry throughout the day. Meltdowns are known to occur at home, school, or among friends. This diagnosis is given between the ages of 6 and 18.
Children do not have to pay bills or run errands, but just like adults, children experience their share of demands that if frustrations and disappointment begin to build, they can become stressed, overwhelmed, and worry. Additionally, children who have suffered trauma or neglect are prone to experience feelings of anxiety. These intense feelings of anxiety are often expressed as a meltdown.
Are your child’s basic needs being met? Yes, it sounds like a rhetorical question, but it is needed a valid question. Is your child overly tired? Are they hungry/thirsty? Sometimes the solution to the meltdown can be that simple.
Children on the autism spectrum are prone to experience meltdowns when there is a change, discomfort, or fear. These children depend on structure and routine to thrive and feel safe. Any shift in a pattern or any unexpected change can result in a meltdown. Some children on the spectrum may lack the language and communication skills to express their feelings appropriately. Still, their meltdown is their way of communicating that something is wrong and that they need help.
Does your child have repeated meltdowns during schoolwork time/homework time? Then it may be a possibility that they have an undiagnosed learning disorder. They may be experiencing difficulties with math, reading, or writing, making them feel frustrated, embarrassed, and irritable. Instead of asking for help, they may throw their work down or distract a classmate by diverting from the real issue at hand.
Sensory processing problems:
Sensory processing is the process that organizes sensation from one’s own body and the environment, thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment. Children who have sensory processing problems their brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through their senses. This may cause children to feel overwhelmed by stimulation and thus leading to a meltdown.
How to support your child during a meltdown?
As parents, It’s normal to feel angry and frustrated with your child if meltdowns occur frequently, but remember that they’re observing how you handle your feelings too because this is how they will learn to manage their emotions as they become older. Despite your frustrations, it is important to understand that it is no longer a teaching moment when your child is experiencing a meltdown. Amid a meltdown, it can be challenging to teach your child to regulate their frustration.
Strategies to offer support:
- Provide safety: Your focus should be on finding a safe and quiet place for your child to de-escalate. For example, if at the zoo or amusement park, the ideal goal is to reduce overstimulating the child by moving them to a place with little to no sensory overload. A calm environment gives your child’s brain a moment to catch up on processing the sensory information.
- Remain calm and be patient: During a meltdown, try to remain calm while providing reassurance without talking too much to your child. Try also to be patient because your child is doing the best they can, given their developmental age. Sometimes they just cannot help it. Your compassionate, reassuring presence will result in a quicker resolution to their meltdown.
- Connect, Acknowledge, and Validate: Remain connected to your child during a meltdown. Children need connection during moments when they are frustrated and cannot process all the information going into their brains. This can be achieved by simply keeping eye contact, helping them to take deep breaths, all along while reassuring your child that you are there and not going anywhere. Avoid trigger words such as relax, calm down, and shut up. Help your child to learn what they are feeling by acknowledging it to them: “I see you that are sad with all the lights and music at the amusement, let’s go home and do something just you and me.” Validate how they feel because you want your child to know that what they are feeling is okay and that they are safe: “I feel sad too when I am hungry or tired, but that is okay.”
- Do not worry about those around you: I know that this is easier said than done because, as humans, we can be pretty judgmental without even realizing it. Do not worry about how those around you may respond or act. Watching your child experience a tantrum while worrying about people’s reactions will add unnecessary stress to an already stressful event. Remember, meltdowns are a child’s way of expressing that they are in an overload that they cannot process. Remember, these behaviors can improve and change as time progress.
- Autism and/or Learning disability: If your child has either, then patience is vital:
- Do not attempt to stop your child from stimming; this helps to soothe your child when experiencing painful emotions.
- Do not attempt to restrain your child (unless it is a behavior that is life-threatening); this will only escalate their actions, provide them with space that they need.
- Find out what can cause a trigger and try to avoid it. If some triggers are unavoidable, make sure to have a structured day that’s filled with fun.
- Reassure your child that they are not a burden and not an embarrassment. Let them know that they are loved.
- Stimulate with the sense of touch: Yes, I know I mentioned that sensory overload could be too much for a child to process at all once. But providing your child with sensory input (for example, play-doh, a squeezy ball, or kinetic sand) can bring them to a calm state and relieve those pent up emotions that have them feeling so overwhelmed. Feeling the textures of these particular objects in their hands provide immediate sensory satisfaction.
- Promote self-regulation: Promoting teaching self- regulation has to be done when your child is in a calm state. When your child is relaxed and happy, use those moments to educate them on regulating emotions, especially intense emotions. When a child is experiencing a meltdown, it is essential to implement the steps mentioned above before promoting self-regulation. These steps listed above do not need to be followed in chronological order; neither do you need to implement all. Choose the ones that work best for you and your child and develop a structured strategy to use whenever meltdowns occur. Repetition is key in helping a child to manage their unpleasant emotions. Remind them of the process and walk them through the steps every time as this will help to promote their emotional intelligence skills.
How can you cope as a parent?
- Remain calm
Tantrums and meltdowns are hard to understand, tough to prevent, and seemingly impossible to handle when they happen. Try and remember to remain calm during the meltdown episodes as your child, in most cases, cannot help it, and they are learning from you how to cope with emotions that they will experience as they continue to grow.
- Reassure yourself that you are not spoiling your child
Reassure yourself that whatever approach you are taking, it is not “spoiling” your child. Instead, you are trying to find the best option that will allow your child to feel safe and calm. You are treating the condition that is causing your child emotional distress. Remember, other methods you may have used in the past did not, and you are simply trying to find a “cool-down” strategy that can help release a sensory overload.
- Don’t be afraid or embarrass to seek help
Sometimes it can become too much for you emotionally that you may need outside. This is nothing to feel embarrassed about. If you notice that you are able to measure/time your child’s meltdown (meaning it always occurs a specific time and lasts more than 45 minutes), then there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Reach out for help so that you and your child can get the help you both need.
- Join a parent support group
Yes, there are support groups out there for parents. You are not in this along. Tantrums and meltdowns occur during developmental stages or when there may be an underlying mental health concern. Support groups help alleviate stress and emotional pain that you may be experiencing as you will have that extra support needed from other parents that can relate to you.
- Try to take time to center yourself
Sometimes trying to find the time may seem impossible! Children are very hands-on and often want attention all the time. Still, try to make an effort to spend a little time with yourself to disconnect and recharge your batteries, so you refocus yourself emotionally and mentally, so you don’t experience a nervous breakdown. It can be anything from going to the nail salon, going to a spa/barber, having a guys/girls night out, or going away on vacation.
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing: 2013.
- Child Mind Institute. (2020). Why do kids have tantrums and meltdowns? https://childmind.org/article/why-do-kids-have-tantrums-and-meltdowns/
- MedlinePlus (2019). Medical Encyclopedia – Temper tantrums. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001922.htm#:~:text=Temper%20tantrums%20are%20unpleasant%20and,emotions%20when%20they%20are%20frustrated.
- Sisterhen, L. & Why, P. (2020). Temper Tantrums. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544286/
- Star Institute: Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder. (2020). https://www.spdstar.org/basic/understanding-sensory-processing-disorder