“My kid had another meltdown today.” Some children have a difficult time controlling their emotions, which makes it difficult for the parent to help them through behaviors. If your child cries at the mention of bedtime, screams when the toilet flushes, or hits at what seems to be the drop of a hat, this page is for you. There are a few things to consider in order to help your child, and ultimately your entire family, live a better quality of life. For specific things tailored for your child, Occupational Therapy can be helpful. There are three general reasons your child may have meltdowns more than average: behaviors to avoid or get something, low emotional awareness, and sensory needs.
- Behaviors. To determine if a meltdown is behavioral or something else, observe if your child calms down as soon as they get what they want (a toy, attention, taking a non-preferred food away, etc). If they do, it is most likely behavioral. Here are some things that can help behavioral meltdowns:
- Structure: To-do lists, picture schedules, first-then statements (first you do what you don’t want to do, then you get a reward of...), predictable routines, and reward/punishment system tailored to what your kid responds to that is predictable and structured.
- Ignore: Ignoring is not neglecting. Sometimes when a child misbehaves or cries it is just for the attention so it is essential to ignore the behavior unless they are harming themselves or others. Try to maintain a calm voice and only interfere if they are rewarding themselves (playing with a toy while refusing to do their task) or causing harm. On the flip side, thank them when they do something well and only give them attention when they are behaving.
- Emotional awareness. Sometimes kids seem like a switch with emotions, one second they are fine and the next they are screaming and hitting with no obvious cause or change in between. These children often have low emotional awareness. These children do not realize they are upset until they cannot control it, they do not understand what to do with the emotions inside of them or what they mean. Here are some suggestions to help them: To determine if a meltdown is behavioral or something else, observe if your child calms down as soon as they get what they want (a toy, attention, taking a non-preferred food away, ect). If they do, it is most likely behavioral. Here are some things that can help behavioral meltdowns:
- Storytelling: Try to tell stories of real-life situations and explain how the main character feels. Explain how when they are upset other people get upset too.
- Emotion chart: Print out a chart with different emotions (an easy search is “zones of regulation emotion chart). Start practicing pointing to or saying which they feel. Build it into your schedule and start to use it when they are upset. Being able to say “I am angry and sad” is a great first step. This is a super great link to learn more: https://www.zonesofregulation.com/learn-more-about-the-zones.html
- Toolbox: Once they are able to identify their emotions, come up with tools to help restore them to peaceful and happy feelings. Examples include deep breathing, music, time out time in a quiet environment, and playing with a fidget toy.
- Sensory needs. Other times, children display behaviors when their bodies are receiving too much or too little input to make sense of. The behaviors may come out in a loud environment, for example. To identify if your child has sensory needs, attempt to meet those needs. Children may need sensory input if they are walking on their toes, moving back and forth, or being rougher than they normally would be and seem unaware. Here are some things to assist your child with sensory needs:
- Spot the need: The first step is for you to spot the need before the meltdown. Establish ways your child can ask for preferred input (ex. Pictures to point at, putting hand on your lap, verbally asking if they can).
- Meet the need: This can help after the meltdown starts. Many times, applying deep squeezes to their limbs, firmly rubbing their back, and giving them a tight hug can be a calming influence. Turning the lights off, placing them in a quiet environment, ect can also assist. Talk to an Occupational Therapist for more information suited to your child’s needs, because every child is unique.
- Toolbox: Similar to emotions to help calm down, having things with them for when they need sensory input can be helpful as well. Things such as putty or PayDoh, noise cancelation headphones, fidget spinners can help prevent meltdowns.
Many times, there is a combination of the above three things. Empower yourself and your child to communicate needs and work through behaviors for a better quality of life. For more specific ideas, try to contact 321Go Kids for an evaluation.
Zones of Regulation. (2021). https://www.zonesofregulation.com/learn-more-about-the-zones.html.
“Pediatric Self-Regulation". Washington University Physicians.