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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Kaminski, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA(VA)

Managing Meltdowns

Every parent has, at some point, dealt with an inconsolable or screaming child, often at a very inconvenient time or in a very uncomfortable place. Every so often my mother reminds me about the time when 4-year-old me sat down on the floor of the supermarket and screamed, and then wet my pants, because she wouldn’t buy my favorite frozen dinner. Whether brought on by not getting what we want, being overstimulated, or trying to get out of doing something, these episodes are a fact of life.

An Ounce of Prevention….

Taking steps to prevent tantrums and meltdown is the first line of attack.

Set Expectations. If you know your child will be in a challenging situation, it can be very helpful to communicate expectations before it occurs (and what your child can gain as a result of remaining calm). For example, if you are heading to the pool, which can be overstimulating, telling your child “There will be a lot of people at the pool and it will be loud. If it bothers you, let me know and we will take a break. If we have a good day at the pool, we will pick up McDonald's on the way home.”

Practice Calming Techniques. Another useful preventative strategy is to practice calming techniques (for example, deep breaths, counting, etc.) at times when your child is already calm. Then, if you know your child will be in a challenging situation, you can use those techniques before an episode (or when it you know it is about to start).

Avoid. When my own kids were young, I learned that it was a game of Russian Roulette taking them to the supermarket before lunch. After lunch was a totally different story; a more content child who was loved helping with the shopping. Avoiding challenging situations, when possible, can be a good strategy.

Reality Strikes

Unfortunately, in real life, those kinds of preventative actions are not always possible. And sometimes, even though we have taken steps to lessen the chances, tantrums and meltdowns still occur. And yes, if that happens in public, there will be folks that give you the side-eye or might even say something unkind. I can’t say anything about unkind people, except to remind you not to give their reaction a second thought.

What we can talk about, however, are strategies for managing the episodes when they occur. Before I do that, I just want to remind you that there is a difference between a “tantrum” and a “meltdown.”

Tantrums are usually related to being denied or asked to do something. During a tantrum, your child remains in control of their behavior and can adjust their behavior depending on how you react. You can often interrupt a tantrum.

A “meltdown,” on the other hand, is an emotional dysregulation triggered by overstimulation. A tantrum can escalate into a meltdown as your child becomes overstimulated from the tantrum. Meltdowns typically are “beyond the point of no return;” you just have to ride them out.

Please, calm down

Never in the history of ever has someone calmed down as a result of being told to “calm down.” Here are some other strategies.

Safety is first priority. Ensure that your child, yourself, and others remain safe. This may include asking others to leave the area, removing potential projectiles, etc.

Remain calm. While I don't recommend telling your child to "calm down," staying as calm as you can yourself will really help. Stress feeds stress. So, if you become emotionally heightened, it can prolong or escalate the episode.

Use a calm, quiet voice. Not only does that help maintain your calm, your child also needs to attend to you more closely if you speak calmly and quietly, which can have the effect of “breaking into” the episode.

Disarm. A quiet voice isn't the only thing that can "break in" or disarm during a tantrum. A silly voice, a ridiculous fact, or some other unexpected, but slightly silly, event can divert from the tantrum. Just be warned that if the only time you are silly is during a tantrum, you may be setting yourself up for more tantrums.

Give choices. If it is a tantrum, decide what you are willing to accept and present no more than two options. By already knowing what you are willing to accept, you limit the back-and-forth that is associated with negotiating and you stay in control of the solution.

And finally, a reminder. Don’t negotiate or “reason” with your child. If it’s a meltdown, then your child is beyond the point of reasoning. If it is tantrum, avoid providing lots of “rationale” while it is happening (you can “debrief” the situation after it has passed).

Remember that all children experience these episodes. As they mature, learn to communicate, and develop social-emotional skills, tantrums and meltdowns lessen. For a child with ASD, it may take longer to get there because of their communication and emotional regulation delays. If you would like a more individualized approach, ask your Behavior Analyst to cover tantrum/meltdown strategies during Family Guidance sessions!


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