Day #2 Meltdowns vs tantrums

A question that often comes up for me as a teacher and also as a parent, relates to meltdowns. What are meltdowns? How can you identify a meltdown? How can you help when a child is in meltdown? Firstly, we need to establish that meltdowns are not tantrums.

Tantrums normally occur as a result of a child not getting what they want. Tantrums are about the child wanting to obtain some kind of goal/object/need. The child tends to maintain an awareness of the world around them, often looking for the reactions of their carer. Tantrums are generally over with reasonably quickly and although the child is clearly upset, they are still in control of themselves and their personal safety.

Meltdowns are hard to define but very simply, they are a loss of behavioural control generally due to fatigue, sensory overload (flicking lights, crowds, excess noise, temperature), excessive demands, stress or environmental factors (change to routine). Meltdowns are experienced by most individuals with autism. During a meltdown a child loses control entirely. They are in survival mode – in fight or flight. They may not necessarily keep themselves safe, they may even hurt themselves and it may take some minutes to hours for them to calm down. They are not in control of themselves or their emotions. It is completely overwhelming for them.

tantrum versus meltdown

As a parent it’s really heartbreaking when your child is having a meltdown and despite your every effort, you just can’t seem to help them, you just don’t know what to do. This often makes some parents feel frustrated and helpless. Remember that a child in fight flight will not respond to reason, or rewards, or threats – they cannot be controlled. You should not approach them with anger, you should resist eye contact, you should cease excessive talking, you should not place demands upon them or attempt to restrain them. All these things are behaviours that serve a purpose for you, not for the child who is in meltdown.

When your child has a meltdown sometimes all you can do is just sit beside them, and offer a hug (rarely accepted in my house) and some words of comfort. Sometimes it’s best to just close the door and walk away, allowing your child the time and space to calm down in their own time and in their own way I still really struggle with this because every fibre of my being as a mother wants to help – to nurture, to hug, to heal. I have had to learn that what’s important is what the boys need in this situation and as hard as it is for me, this often involves removing myself from the situation.

The best way to deal with meltdowns and hopefully prevent them is to talk to your child. Ask them what they need from you? How can you help them? Perhaps you could establish a routine – a default process that you commence when a meltdown is imminent? If you are all on the same page and you’ve practised this routine whilst everyone is calm, it can really take the pressure off when emotions are heightened and the circumstances are stressful. Try to identify the things that trigger meltdowns and where possible, try to avoid these or implement strategies that might divert a meltdown from happening. When it’s not possible to avoid these stressors, talk about your plan for managing meltdowns and practise it.

If a meltdown is likely there are a few strategies you might try to divert the meltdown:-

  • Use a calming sensory item such as a weighted blanket
  • Massage or deep pressure input
  • Allow the child to retreat to a small, safe place (pop up tent, cupboard at home, under bed)
  • Take a warm bath
  • Use aromatherapy (lavender and chamomile are calming scents)
  • Create and use a word or phrase so the child can alert an adult to a possible meltdown
  • wear headphones when in crowds
  • listen to music or use relaxation/breathing techniques to calm

Meltdowns are really tough for the child and they are also a challenge for those who care for them. It’s important to remember though that the child’s meltdown is not about misbehaviour or acting out or being difficult. A meltdown is a sign that your child is having a really hard time. Making the time to talk with your child and developing some strategies and plans in advance can really help to ensure everyone comes through the storm safely and with their needs having been met.

meltdown judy endow