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The Anatomy of a Meltdown and How to Treat It

The emotional and physical explosion that makes up a meltdown is difficult for you, but for little ones, they’re pretty exhausting. Consider just how difficult it can be for you, as an adult, to get past disappointment or frustration. Now imagine being a little kid without perspective or developmental tools to understand a frustrating situation.

Thankfully, understanding the anatomy and triggers of a meltdown will make you better equipped to avoid and handle them when they do occur. Let’s take a look at some of the triggers, warning signs, and components of a meltdown to help you and your children deal with them more effectively.

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Meltdown triggers

Children do not have the processing ability that adults have, and even adults don’t handle adversity that well at times. The only difference is we act as if we’re entitled to have a breakdown and children should simply “behave themselves”. The truth is, kids have meltdowns for a variety of reasons and the first step to handling them better is to understand how their little minds work.

Common meltdown triggers to watch out for are:

  • Novel interaction, like schoolwork or meeting new people.
  • Having to wait for something, especially where other external stimuli are playing a confounding role, i.e. waiting in line on a hot summer day.
  • Embarrassment or frustration at not being able to do a task.
  • Being told no, especially when they have been told no repeatedly earlier in the day.

Meltdown symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Physical reactions to adversity like screaming or self-harm.
  • Acting out and refusing to follow directions.
  • Crying and retreating from comfort.

Sensory meltdown

While autistic children have difficulty processing sensory information sometimes, all children can get overloaded very easily. Especially in new situations – a retail store, an important event like a wedding or funeral, or meeting people for the first time – children will often get overwhelmed.

Too much visual or auditory stimulation can push a child’s brain to frustration at not being able to handle all of it. At that point, it only takes a little bit of adversity to trigger a meltdown.

Embarrassment or rigidity

Children often have a very black or white view of the world; if they’re told no, there’s no nuance, it’s just unfair. If they lose a game or make a mistake, they might consider themselves bad. With no room for variables or interpretation, it makes any set-back or frustration infinitely more psychologically painful. Be mindful that the barbs of self-criticism hurt little minds the most.

Contributing factors

When a child has an underlying condition, such as autism, ADHD, mood disorders, or physical conditions like chronic pain, their threshold for the meltdown is significantly lower. They might struggle with internal regulation, identifying tension, or communicating feelings — all of which can contribute to a “0 to 100” mentality when something bothers them.

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How to help a child having a meltdown

The first step is to understand that children model their behavior after you – if you are quick to frustration in the face of adversity, your child will react in kind. Start by practicing mindfulness each day, take a step back from your raw emotions when they arise, and examine them. That split-second of deference can prevent you from turning into an angry parent, modeling impulsive behavior to your children. 

Distract them from the triggering incident

If you focus on something the child loves while they meltdown, you can take their focus from the trigger and bring them back to a calm state. Humor or their favorite toys are good ways to increase calmness and reduce stress. Help them channel their emotions into something healthy, and encourage them to express their energy in a different way.

Do not engage with power struggles

If your child takes their meltdown as an opportunity to push the boundaries of your discipline, do not engage with them in a contrarian manner. Instead, get on their level – kneel or squat – and acknowledge their frustration, and truly make it clear that their feelings are valid. Lean into helping them deal with their pain, rather than how their behavior is affecting you.

Parenting tips to help prevent future meltdowns

There are a handful of daily practices to make your children more confident in their daily lives that also help reduce the occurrence and magnitude of meltdowns:

  • Involve them in daily chores, especially if they are asking to help, as this builds a sense of importance and confidence.
  • Build them up in areas in which they’re already proficient – dance, sports, art, and music are all great ways to channel their abilities.
  • Understand that you’re constantly modeling behavior, so be mindful of how you react to adversity.

Finding help with meltdowns

Understanding is the first step – a meltdown consists of triggers:

  • Frustration.
  • Embarrassment.
  • Sensory overload.

And confounding variables:

  • Genetic or sensory processing disorders.
  • ADHD, depression, anxiety, or mood disorders.
  • Simply having a child’s mind with all the complexities and difficulties that entails.

If you need assistance with finding a positive way to handle and prevent meltdowns, Infinite Therapy Solutions can assist you and your family in the Hudson County, NJ area. With over 20 years of experience, Infinite Therapy Solutions provides physical, speech, and language therapy to help children with special needs and their families. Sometimes it takes a little bit of outside help to achieve peace and structure with your children, so give them a call at 201-455-3144 or contact them online to see the difference professional assistance can make.