This week’s question is from Marcus,
“I need ideas for how to manage meltdowns with my son who is seven years old. He is autistic and also has a history of trauma and has been given lots of other labels too. When he gets upset, he literally melts down, and I really don’t know how to calm him. He doesn’t respond to things like offering a treat or threatening punishment, and I’m really not sure what to do to help.”
In this episode, I will address how to effectively handle meltdowns, tantrums, and challenging behavior, which are tools all parents need! First, we need to understand what a meltdown really is and then we will dive into many strategies: starting with where parents and caretakers often go wrong, and how using a “bottom-up” approach is much more effective. I will give you tips and suggestions for all aspects of the meltdown process, as well as helpful reminders for yourself and for when they are transitioning into a more regulated state.
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question About His Son’s Meltdowns … 00:55:00
What is a True Meltdown vs. a Tantrum? … 00:01:51
Causes of a Meltdown & Bottom-Up Approach … 00:05:10
Top-Down Approaches & Where Adults Go Wrong … 00:06:54
Remove Stimulation & Demands During Meltdowns … 00:09:46
Keep Your Pace Slower & Voice Quieter … 00:12:36
Using Physical Comfort when Appropriate During Meltdowns … 00:16:13
Clear the Space or Have a Calming Safe Space … 00:18:29
Bring Comforting Items With You When Away from Home … 19:38
Kids that Flee or Become Physical During Meltdown … 21:21
When the Child Comes Out of Meltdown & Transitioning … 23:27
Episode Wrap up … 00:26:29
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are talking about meltdowns, how these are different from a tantrum and what you can do to help your child without unintentionally making it worse. The specific question today comes to us from Marcus, and shout out to all the dads who listen, I know most of the questions come from moms, but I love it when a dad writes in, and Marcus writes, “I need ideas for how to manage meltdowns with my son who is seven years old. He is autistic and also has a history of trauma and has been given lots of other labels too. When he gets upset, he literally melts down, and I really don’t know how to calm him. He doesn’t respond to things like offering a treat or threatening a punishment, and I’m really not sure what to do to help.” Marcus, this is a great question, and I know so many of the parents listening can relate. Now, what I’m going to talk about here is relevant to all of you with kids who maybe get really overwhelmed and have these meltdown kinds of episodes. So this is not specific to a child who is autistic, or has another specific label, although it definitely applies to any child who has a neurodevelopmental type of issue.
So let’s start with the big picture of what we are really talking about when we are talking about a meltdown. I will just say there are a lot of terms that we use for these things. I’m not sure any of them are great, but these are the terms that we use to talk about it. So I’m going to use that term, but I just want to be sensitive to that, that meltdown, or episode, or tantrum, or these kinds of things, there are lots of words that we could use for them. But let’s talk about what a meltdown is, and what we are talking about here. This is really a breakdown of processing in the child’s brain. When a child is melting down, they are having a total brain overwhelm. It is not a consciously driven process or decision and that is really important to realize, because this distinguishes it from how we might use the word tantrum, or maybe just a child getting upset and stomping their feet and yelling about something. A meltdown is really about this neurological overwhelm, and the child’s brain completely being overtaken by sensations, by environmental overwhelm, by everything that is going on in the moment. So this is so relevant to any of you who have a child with a neurodevelopmental disorder, whether that is autism, ADHD, anything on that neurodevelopmental disorder spectrum, along with many of you who have kids with mental health challenges, certainly if you have a child with a history of trauma, these are kids whose brains tend to be really sensitive and vulnerable to overwhelm. And when they get really overwhelmed, and their brain is just flooded with more information than they can make sense of and manage in that moment, we get a meltdown. And again, it’s not a conscious process. It’s not something the child is making a decision to do. This is why things like rewards and punishments in these situations are really not appropriate or effective because offering a reward or threatening a punishment assumes that the child is in a state where they are consciously making the decision to do the things that they are doing, and it assumes that well, they are intentionally making this decision, therefore they can intentionally make a different decision, and so if I offer a reward or threaten a punishment, that will increase their motivation to make a different decision. Well, that does not work in the situations where kids’ processing systems in their brain are totally overwhelmed and they are melting down because it’s not a conscious, intentional process. So Marcus is absolutely right when he says, “My child isn’t responding to things like offering a treat or threatening punishments,” right, because that is not what it’s about.
So what do we need to do here? Well, first, we need to understand that this is what’s going on. The child’s brain has gotten totally overwhelmed with information. Now that information can be sensory information in the environment around them, it can be information in the form of task demands or expectations, it can be emotional information, their own feelings, the feelings of the people that are around them, it can be anything coming into their brain that is flooding them and that their brain isn’t able to process or make sense of quickly enough, and so they get overwhelmed, and then they start to shut down and meltdown. So that is what’s happening here. We need to understand that in order to support this in a way that is really going to be most beneficial, and that is going to entail supporting the child in this situation from the bottom up.
What do I mean by that? I mean, from the bottom of the developmental period, that pyramid, from the bottom of their brain system up, meaning physical safety, and physical regulation, and emotional safety and emotional regulation, that is all that needs to come first. They need to feel safe and connected before we can do anything else here. So that is a bottom-up approach. It’s looking at what’s at the root of this, what we fundamentally need to support here to help bring the child’s processing systems their brain back online, so that they can think about this, and we can move forward. It’s very different from what’s typically done, which is a top-down approach of starting at the level of thinking.
Rewards and punishments, reminding them what they need to do, trying to talk with them about it, trying to reason with them. Those are all top-down approaches, those are not going to work in a situation like this. We need to operate from the bottom up. So here are some well-meaning but problematic things that I see adults doing with kids who are having meltdowns — this could go for parents, teachers, therapists, whoever. The first thing is trying to explain or reason with the child. Again, that is a top-down approach, not going to work here. And actually, what we do when we start putting a lot of our own verbal commentary into the situation, we are pouring gasoline on the fire because we are now adding to the amount of information coming into their brain that they already are struggling with making sense of, and so we are just making it worse. So trying to explain or reason is not going to be helpful. Asking them to make choices, also not going to be helpful. By the time a child is in meltdown mode, they are not in a place where they can really think through and logically make choices about things, so that is not going to be helpful. I already mentioned threatening punishments or trying to offer rewards, that is also not going to be beneficial here. In general, talking too much. And I see parents and professionals do this with the best of intentions trying to soothe — like we think about it from our perspective of maybe what would make us feel better, someone talking to us about it, but you have to remember, this is a brain now that is in total overwhelm mode, and us pouring more into their brain at that point is just going to cause it to continue to overflow. So we really want to limit the talking that we are doing.
And then the other piece that I find that adults do, that is well intentioned but problematic, is being overwhelming with your own actions and emotions. Remember, this is a child who has a brain that is now overflowing with input that they can’t manage, and that input includes the actions and the emotions of the people around them. So when we are moving quickly or having big actions, nonverbal communication, big gestures, big movements, when we are having a lot of emotions ourselves, our emotions are escalating or we are showing that on our face, these really intense emotions, that is going to add to this overwhelm and it’s actually going to prolong the situation and prevent them and us from being able to come down from that. So those are all things that I see adults doing that actually can make the situation worse.
So what do we want to focus on here to help improve their ability to come out of these periods of overwhelm and meltdown quicker and more effectively? The first is to look at removing stimulation and demands. This is key. Again, I want you to think about their brain. Think about like a funnel of information going into their brain, and that funnel now is full to the top. There is more being poured into that funnel than what can come through into their brain at once, and so they are melting down because they are overwhelmed. This funnel is backing up. So one of the things we can do to help is reduce the stimulation, to stop pouring more information and demands into that funnel. So what does it look like to reduce or remove stimulation? It might be things like turning the lights down or off, reducing the amount of sound and auditory input in the environment. It might mean bringing them to a space that has less sensory stimulation, we are removing any of this excess stuff in the environment that their brain is having to process, we are trying to reduce or remove that. And the demands piece, we need to remove all tasks demands in that moment. I don’t care if there was an activity that you were trying to get them to do or whatever it might be, at a minimum, yes, we are going to focus on keeping everybody safe, but beyond that, we are removing all demands. So when a child is melting down, we aren’t going to force the, “No, you need to get this thing finished”, or “No, I told you to do this.” Now, side note, I know this runs very counter to what some of you as parents have been taught or told that you need to do with autistic kids or kids with other kinds of these other types of challenges. If you’ve been trained in models like applied behavior analysis, ABA, those types of things, you have been trained to do exactly not the things that I’m telling you here, and you just need to understand that this is probably a big part of why your child is melting down, and it’s not helpful to improving their brain’s ability to process. So just a side note about that, I’m saying remove all demands. When your child is already totally overwhelmed and melting down, we have to pull back and stop with the demands, this is not the time for that. We need to establish a sense of safety in their body and their brain, a sense of connectedness and trust with us, then we move forward from there. Forcing them to continue activities, finish something, do the thing that you’re telling them to do, that is not going to help here.
Alright, so we removed stimulation or reduced the stimulation to the extent that we can, and we have removed all demands in that moment. Alright. Second thing, keep your pace slower, and your voice quieter. This is so key. I want you to really think about doing minimal talking, or even no talking during these times. This helps build trust and felt safety for them, that you get that they are overwhelmed and you’re not going to add to that overwhelm by talking, talking, talking at them. So if you are talking, you’re keeping it really slow and quiet. You are saying only the bare minimum things that need to be said, maybe letting them know you’re there, it’s going to be okay. But otherwise, you do not continue to talk and be loud. The other thing that you can do is slowing your pace, not just the pace of your voice and your verbal communication, but the pace of your actions. Just slow yourself down, focus on slowing your breathing down, slow your actions down. Don’t be chaotically rushing or moving around yourself, that is more information for them to have to take in and it’s going to be overwhelming. So you’re going to focus on controlling your pacing, keeping your voice calm, and quiet, and slow. That is key.
Now another piece here: Some kids benefit from some physical comforting during these meltdown periods. If that is helpful, go ahead and do it. That could be something like a back rub, a firm hug, maybe a massage to their hand or to their shoulders. Maybe it’s putting them on your lap gently and rocking back and forth in a regulating kind of way. For some kids that is very helpful for soothing their nervous system and bringing them out of meltdown mode. However, for some kids, that is not helpful. That is more input that just exacerbates the overwhelm. You know your child. Figure that out. If that is helpful, go ahead and do that. And again, slow, firm, steady pace with that, a slow firm back rub or hug them and then release, and then hug them and release, or rocking. You’re keeping it slow paced, deep pressure, nice, soothing, regulatory movement, or you’re not touching them in that way at all because that is not helpful to them. Some kids may need quiet, total quiet, and time away from you and anyone else and everything, and that is okay. If that is what your child needs, let them go to the tent in their dark bedroom with no one and nothing around and let them get rid of all of the overwhelm and let their nervous system calm. That is completely fine. I know that in a lot of the parenting things that we talked about, that we’d say don’t put your child in time out, don’t leave them alone to have to deal with big emotions and things like that, and generally, I think that that is true, but there are kids, especially if they are in a meltdown mode where everything is completely overwhelming to them, it is totally fine and appropriate, if it’s helpful to them to be in a quiet, dark, whatever space away from everyone, let them do it. Okay, so that is what we are looking at, what’s going to be most helpful with that.
Another piece here that kind of fits with that is clearing the space. If it is an overwhelming space, what can you do to clear that out and make it less overwhelming? Or can you move them to a quieter, safer, more contained area? With young kids, we can do that. If you have a child who tends to be easily overwhelmed, who goes into meltdown mode a lot, I highly recommend for families to have a calming safe space in the home. Maybe it’s a closet, maybe it’s a tent in the bedroom, maybe it’s a room that doesn’t have much in it, where they can go and you can go with them during these times, that is very low stimulation that is safe, and that allows them to de-escalate and allows their nervous system to calm. Sometimes you may be in a public space or in a space in the home where it’s not possible to move them to that area. Do what you can to try to clear the space of things that could be a problem or could be overwhelming, and just be thinking about, “How can I create a more soothing, contained environment here?”
Some other things that can be helpful, again, in a calming area at home, or that you can even bring with you if you’re going out in public or to someone else’s house or a different classroom or whatever. Bring something like a lycra body sock, or a lycra tunnel, or a small, one of those foldable instant pop up kinds of tents, or a weighted blanket, some things like that, that are very portable, that can be used in a moment of total overwhelming meltdown to help soothe their body and their brain if needed. So those can be helpful items. Sometimes soft music is regulating and helpful. Not for all kids, but sometimes that is, and sometimes you have a playlist, or you have an app with certain songs that are instrumental, or with soft words, whatever it might be that resonates and is soothing to your child’s nervous system, that could be helpful. It may be something like headphones that you bring with you, or that you allow your child to access. If you’re not going to have control over minimizing auditory stimulation, and they get overwhelmed, they can put the noise cancelling headphones or earplugs or whatever works for them, so that can be helpful, even in the home environment sometimes. So those are some of the things that you can think about either to create an environment that they can go to where you can bring them to that helps soothe their nervous system and gets them in a safe place on a neurological and nervous system level so that they can rebound quicker, or things you can bring with you to help create that safety and that regulation if you’re outside of your home.
Now, if you have a child who when they go into this total overwhelm and meltdown mode, maybe has a tendency to do things like trying to bolt or run away from the area, and that could be unsafe, or maybe gets aggressive or can lash out — again, it’s not intentional, but they are trying to create safety and security for themselves in those moments, then you’re going to need to think about how to stay physically connected to them to prevent them from being injured or unsafe or hurting somebody else. So that may look like just standing sort of away from them but holding firmly onto their hand to maintain that physical connection so that they can’t run off and potentially be hurt. That may look like, for a younger child or a smaller child, firmly holding them on your lap to prevent them from getting into a dangerous situation or hurting someone. It may mean bringing them to a space where you can control them being able to run away or lash out at others. If they are older, you’re going to contain the area, maybe stand against the door. You’re going to need to do what you need to do there to maintain safety for them and for you, and that is where having some of these soothing strategies at your disposal is helpful. If you’re with a bigger child who is physically bigger, maybe even a teen or a young adult, and you can’t physically contain them, so you need to look at how you can quickly reduce stimulation in the environment, how you can reduce the stimulation that you are putting into the environment, how you can quickly get into a mode of not adding to their overwhelm, and showing them that you are a safe regulatory presence for them, while also looking at how you perhaps need to block the door, or remove some items from the space, or whatever you need to do to maintain safety there.
I think the last thing I want to say around this is when a child comes out of meltdown mode, which eventually does happen — whether we use strategies that help them or not, eventually, they do come out of this, obviously, we want to help that along by using these kinds of tools and concepts and strategies to support them so that they can come out of that total overwhelm and meltdown mode quicker and more effectively. But they do come out of it. And we need to realize that it takes time for the brain to rebound from these episodes. This is critical, because something that I see happen, again, it’s well intentioned, but parents will wait for a child to calm, maybe come out of their meltdown, and then immediately try to go back into whatever the activity was or go back to “normal life”. But the child may be out of the meltdown mode, but their nervous system has not completely gone back to a regulated, carry on as usual way of operating, and their brain is not fully back online yet. So it takes some time, depending on the child, depending on the intensity of the overwhelm, and the meltdown episode, it may take minutes to hours. And so you need to understand that, yes, they have come out of this immediate meltdown mode, but we still need to give them some space, maintain a calm, safe presence, not immediately trying to launch back into whatever it was that felt overwhelming or dysregulated in the first place. Give their brain and their body time to fully come back online, to fully be back in a mode of being able to process input more effectively. That is really, really important, leaving that time, that space, that grace for them there. Otherwise, what you will find is, you will just get in this sort of frustrating cyclical pattern of them melting down, them coming out of the meltdown, but then pretty quickly going back into one again. So you need to understand that it takes the nervous system time to rebound and just respect that and recognize that.
The good thing to know too is that the more that we can recognize early on when a child is starting to get overwhelmed, and maybe even prevent a meltdown in the first place, but even if they go into a meltdown mode, that the more we can use these tools and strategies and ideas I’m talking about with you now, the more that they are able then to come out of these episodes quicker, the more their nervous system is able to regulate, and the less of these incidents over time that you will have. So that is something that is good to be aware of as well.
So I hope that these ideas and these strategies are helpful for Marcus and for all the rest of you who have children who tend to be maybe easily overwhelmed, or tend to have these meltdown kinds of situations. Remember, if you have a question you’d like to hear answered on a future show, please email it to email@example.com and we will add it to the list. Thank you, as always, for listening and I will catch you back here next time.