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Ask the Experts: How to Manage Meltdowns

April 06, 2022
By Michael McKee, Ed.S., LSSP, NCSP, Jessica Guerra, M.Ed

We have all been there. You can hear the tone change in your child’s voice. You can see their face start to scrunch up. Your heart drops. “No! Please not now,” you scream in your head. But there is nothing you can do to stop it; your precious little cherub is about to enter into a full-blown, spine-tingling, cringe-worthy explosion of screaming, flailing, and flopping. It is like you see the train coming, and you can’t get off the tracks. Your stomach turns, and you feel the anger well up inside you. Your child is about to have a meltdown, and you can honestly feel like you might also have one yourself. So, what do you do? Scream back? Spank them? Drop everything, walk in the opposite direction, and don’t stop until you touch ocean water?

If you are calm and rational, you probably realize that none of those strategies will be very effective. However, in the heat of emotionality, they do seem like appropriate responses. This is one of the first and most important things to note when dealing with a meltdown… the first causality of emotionality is rationality. Simply speaking, when you get stressed or emotional, you tend not to think rationally. This goes for both the child and adult. When dealing with a true “meltdown,” or the inability to control one’s behavior, it is important to understand that you are not dealing with a rational individual at that point. This is much different than a tantrum, which is purposeful misbehavior to obtain a specific goal (i.e., obtain a toy or avoid going somewhere undesired... More on that in a different blog post). During a true meltdown, an individual’s emotions have taken over, resulting in irrational behavior.

So, how do you rationally respond to an irrational person? The first step is to remain as calm as possible, which is admittedly easier said than done. From there, you are simply ensuring safety and trying to help calm. You want to make sure that your child’s behavior won’t lead to injury to themselves or others, so blocking them from breakable objects or other people. You may also need to intervene if they are running toward a busy street or other unsafe location. In these situations, you may have to physically move them to ensure their safety. You will need to find a designated spot for them to calm down or where they can have space to calm down. If you need to pick them up and leave where you are, don’t feel bad about leaving or the looks you may receive from others. Most people have been there, and those that haven’t will likely be at some point in their lives. What goes around comes around.

In the middle of a true meltdown is not the time to attempt to have a rational conversation with your child. Keep conversation to a minimum. When you do talk, speak in a calm voice and simply state what you need to say without any extra verbiage. Simple phrases such as “Deep breaths,” “Squeezes,” or “You are ok. I have you,” are much more effective than, “Bobby, knock it off and get in the cart, or mommy will not buy you that toy. This is the last time I am going to warn you! STOP IT! Do you want me to call your father?!?!?”

Once the meltdown has subsided and rationality returns, then it is a good idea to speak to your child about what happened and what could be done differently next time. This conversation is particularly important because it can help you understand what triggered the meltdown so that you can either avoid it or be better prepared for it next time. Preparation is key to helping prevent meltdowns in the future by having appropriate resources (i.e., headphones for potentially loud places) or strategies (i.e., prewarning for changes or having visuals to prompt and show calming techniques) in place and ready if you need them. All behavior is communication, so understanding what your child was trying to communicate to you will help you immensely to avoid future meltdowns.

Remember, meltdowns are a behavioral response to being emotionally overwhelmed. They are NOT a result of a parenting fail. While you cannot prevent all meltdowns, staying calm and being prepared will result in a much better outcome for all involved without having to scream, spank, or split town.

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Michael McKee, EdS, LSSP, NCSP received his Master of Arts Degree and Educational Specialist Degree in School Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). After an internship, he spent seven years as a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP) working for Texas public school districts in Burleson, Frisco, and Katy, where he conducted evaluations and worked with students with emotional, behavioral, and/or developmental disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorder. He has also previously worked in the Dyslexia Center at MTSU and as a Crisis Counselor at the Family and Children’s Services’ Crisis Hotline in Nashville, Tennessee. Michael's main areas of interest include autism, assessment, positive behavior supports, and parent advocacy.

Jessica Guerra, M.Ed received her Master of Education Degree in Special Education with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of Houston-Victoria. She worked as a Registered Behavior Technician for 5 years, where she conducted assessments, wrote behavior intervention plans, and provided direct therapy for individuals with emotional, behavioral, and/or developmental disabilities. Jessica also worked in Early Childhood Intervention as a Specialized Skills Trainer providing families with skills on how to help children meet their developmental milestones and work towards them. Her main areas of interest include autism, behavior intervention plans, PECS, and visual supports.