Updated: Sep 3, 2019
As a mother of two young children, I have experience of attempting to prevent meltdowns at home as well as in my professional work. I worked as a primary school teacher before becoming an EP and used to use some of these techniques even before understanding the rationale behind them. You may find that you use some of these techniques instinctively too.
Often when ‘meltdowns’ or ‘tantrums’ occur it is because a child is emotionally dysregulated and has gone into ‘fight or flight’ mode. Some children may also ‘freeze’. The fight or flight response (or hyperarousal) occurs in response to perceived or actual threat. This doesn’t mean that there has to be a real threat, just that the child thinks there is (or might be) one. It could be a response to physiological threat, such as hunger or fatigue, or the perceived threat could be something that seems minimal to us, such as an activity not being what was expected or a favoured toy not being available. Often meltdowns are triggered at times of transition, where a child is asked to rapidly switch from one activity to another, sometimes with little to no warning.
Tips for preventing/ minimising meltdowns:
- Prepare children for transitions whenever possible. Give them a five minute warning or a chance to complete their activity, e.g. finish that puzzle and then it will be time to get your shoes on to leave the house.
- Use emotional language with your child. Think-aloud about your own emotions and model to your child how you regulate them. For example, if becoming agitated in a traffic jam, tell your child that you are getting frustrated and that you are going to take some deep breaths or count to ten to calm down. Encourage your child to verbalise/ name their feelings wherever possible (this goes for all sorts of feelings... happy, excited, angry, afraid, sad etc.) and talk about feelings in stories and when watching cartoons/ films.
- When you notice a child is becoming dysregulated, name their emotions taking a curious approach, for example “I wonder if you are feeling frustrated because you can’t find your toy? Can I help you to look for it together and if we can’t find it we can do another calming activity instead?”
- Distract, distract, distract! When you feel even the hint of emotional dysregulation that could build to a meltdown aim to distract your child early on. This could mean getting out a new activity or a change of scene such as going in the garden. Even just talking about what you have done earlier in the day or what you are planning to do later in the day. Don’t ask questions, just talk at your child and the sound of your calm voice could be enough to distract them from whatever triggered the dysregulation.
- Use repetitive sensory activities to calm children who are at the very early stages of becoming dysregulated, for example blowing bubbles or threading. Sometimes calling it a ‘job’ to help you is a strategy that can work to give children a sense of purpose and a ‘get out’ from their state of hypersrousal. Examples of such activities include: human shredder (ripping up your unwanted letters/ documents); helping with cooking (ripping up mushrooms, bread, kneading dough, sifting flour); sharpening pencils; cleaning toys (with a cloth and bowl of water/ water spray bottle); pouring or filling containers with pasta, rice, water; tidying and lining up items (toys, DVD, cups... anything).
- For children who are in full meltdown mode try reading aloud from a book in the same room as them. This has been found to reduce the length of meltdowns in some early research with vulnerable children.
- Once children are in full meltdown it can be very difficult to help them to move out of this state. Often the only thing that you can do is to ensure that they are safe, reduce language to a complete minimum and stay close so that they know you are there when they are ready to calm down. For some children deep pressure might work at this point (e.g. a very tight hug, sometimes combined with pacing if they are small enough to pick up or a weighted blanket wrapped around them), while for others this will be too much and they may need to retreat to a safe space (for example their bed or a tent in their room). Parents often find out what works for their child through a trial and error approach, and that is OK. Some soothing words can often help “I hear you. You are safe. You are loved”.
Tantrums and meltdowns are a completely normal part of child development that most parents will have to deal with at some point in their child’s life. However, if you feel that your child is having a particularly difficult time in regulating their emotions, you are concerned about how you or others are handling tantrums or you would like to discuss any other aspect of your child’s behaviour or development, please do not hesitate to get in touch for a no obligation chat about how Solutions Educational Psychology might be able to help.