Meltdowns, like tantrums, typically involve displays of anger or distress, such as yelling, hitting, throwing things, or intense crying. However, while tantrums are usually a reaction to unmet wants or needs, meltdowns tend to happen when children become overwhelmed by challenges or an overabundance of sensory stimuli.
They’re most common among young children (those under age five), but may also affect older kids with learning or developmental disabilities.
During meltdowns, kids experience extreme frustration that makes them unreceptive to guidance and reassurance; as such, meltdowns are best managed through prevention. By teaching your child frustration management skills, you can give him the tools he needs to moderate his angry impulses. To get a handle on meltdowns, kids need to know how to:
- Use words to express emotions and ask for help.
- Divert attention away from frustrating situations.
- Use self-soothing techniques.
- Recognize hostile and catastrophic thinking and respond with neutralizing thoughts (e.g., “This person doesn’t mean to upset me.”)
- Identify triggers and plan for frustrating situations ahead of time.
Mastering these abilities requires frequent practice and a quiet, supportive environment. Even the most intelligent kids can’t learn new skills while they’re experiencing intense emotions, so you should save lessons on self-regulation for times when your child is calm and not under pressure. There are, however, some simple techniques you can use to protect, guide, and care for your child while he’s in the middle of a meltdown.
3 Effective Meltdown Management Strategies
Establish an emotional connection with your child.
Though kids often appear angry during meltdowns, their aggression is a reaction to feeling very anxious and overwhelmed. Kids in this situation need to know they’re safe in order to calm down, so parents should focus on providing a safety net during these difficult experiences. To do this, you’ll need to help your child feel heard, understood, loved, and accepted.
When you see that your child is very upset, approach him slowly while conveying concern with your body language and facial expression. (Kids are very sensitive to non-verbal communication cues.) Let your child you know recognize his pain by saying something like, “I’m sorry you feel so angry.” If you know what’s bothering your child, you might also help him give words to his feelings, such as by saying, “When that happened, you must have been really disappointed.” Then, take a moment to gauge his response; if he seems open to more contact, you can crouch down beside him (to make yourself appear smaller and less threatening) and offer him a hug.
Don’t try to force contact if your child doesn’t want to be approached; doing so will make him feel threatened and possibly incite unwanted behavior, like hitting. Instead, stay nearby while giving him a few moments to calm down. Let him know that you’ll be there whenever he feels ready to talk.
If your child is physically aggressive, remove his ability to do harm.
Kids who lash out physically seldom actually want to damage other people or property; they’re just experiencing a complete loss of control. To keep your child, other children, and property safe, you should use “move and remove” techniques to take other people and items out of harm’s way. Don’t approach your child angrily when you use these strategies, as displaying anger will only make your child more hostile. Use confident but friendly verbal and non-verbal language to let your child know what you’re about to do, and keep your message firm and simple; for example:
“I know you don’t really want to hurt your sister, so I’m going to move her over here, where she’s safe.”
“I know you don’t actually want to break your toy, so I’m going to put it up high until you calm down.”
Similarly, if your child is hitting, kicking, or biting you, calmly let him know that you need to step away for a moment or put a protective object (like a pillow) between your body and his. Keep your distance until your child starts to calm down, then ask him if he’d like you to move closer again so you can help him. Putting the situation in your child’s control will make him feel less threatened and encourage him to trust you.
Suggest ways to take charge of the situation.
Giving your child “take charge” strategies is another way to empower his decision-making abilities, help him shift his attention, relax his body, and communicate his feelings – all of which can defuse a meltdown. While speaking in a firm but positive tone of voice, give your child clear, simple instructions, as outlined below:
“When I count to three, let’s take a deep breath together and make our bodies loose.” (This will help him release tension from his body.)
After your child has taken a few deep breaths, try to get him talking again, e.g., “Can you please use your quiet voice to tell me why you’re upset?” Or, you can prompt your child by giving him a sentence to complete: “I’m angry because…”
If your child is still too tense to talk, try switching activities to divert his attention away from the distressing situation: “We need to think about something else for a while, so why don’t we go throw a ball outside?” If possible, remove your child from the location where he got upset when you pursue another activity; that way, he won’t have any visual cues reminding him of what made him so angry.
If your child doesn’t want to move, don’t force him; instead, try offering him a small incentive to come with you (e.g., “If you calm down and play ball with me, I’ll fix us a nice snack.”) If even that doesn’t work, let him know you’re going to begin the activity you suggested, and he’s free to join you when he’s ready. Most small children hate to feel left out, so your child will probably become curious and tag along if he sees you having fun without him. Don’t encourage compliance by offering more significant material rewards, however; while bribery may work in the short term, it teaches kids that acting out is a good way to get what they want.
When your child does successfully take charge of his feelings (either by communicating with you or accompanying you to another location), give him warm, specific praise: “I’m so proud of you for calming down and talking to me just now; I know how difficult that must have been,” or, “Thank you for coming outside and playing with me; I know it took a lot of effort to stop being angry.”
How to Follow Up After a Meltdown
After you’ve helped your child manage a meltdown, the first thing you should do is take some time out for yourself. Dealing with an out-of-control child can be a stressful and tiring experience, so it’s a good idea to rest and review the situation before you try to teach your child. Go somewhere quiet and honestly acknowledge the way your child’s behavior made you feel. Emotions like shock, fear, anxiety, and anger are all normal, common reactions you might experience after witnessing extreme aggression from your child. If you find these emotions difficult to accept or process, discuss them with another supportive, unbiased adult, such as a friend, relative, or family therapist.
Once you and your child are both calm again, it may be tempting to write his angry outburst off as a random occurrence and move on. However, while you absolutely should forgive your child for his actions, forgetting about his meltdown won’t help him grow. Take the time to sit down with your child and talk about what happened until you’ve established a clear timeline of the events and feelings that led up to him losing control. Then, help him learn frustration management skills (those outlined at the beginning of this article) by rehearsing what happened and practicing ways to handle it better next time. Having the opportunity to “do things over” will reinforce new skills and let your child work through any feelings of shame or remorse he has.
Though learning how to self-regulate is a lifelong process, regular practice early in life will build your child’s frustration tolerance and teach him how to handle even the most challenging obstacles. You’ll also show your child how to reach out for help when he needs it, which is integral to the formation of healthy, stable relationships. With enough patient guidance, even the most frustration-prone kids can become calm, confident leaders.