Defining a Meltdown
The National Autistic Society defines a meltdown in the following way:
A meltdown is “an intense response to overwhelming situations.” It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses behavioral control. This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways.
It is important to remember that a meltdown is not bad behavior or a temper tantrum. Instead, it should be looked at as a response to a situation or an environment.
Every child is different, and what can be overwhelming to one child may not be to another. This makes being observant a very important aspect of child care.
Below I have listed some examples of triggers, but this list is far from conclusive:
• Sensory triggers:
» Tend to be environmental and relate to the fives senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch).
» Include things like loud noises or different sounds; strong smells (perfume, cleaners, food, etc.); certain lighting; and unexpected touch (like a caregiver placing a hand on the child’s shoulder).
• Emotional triggers:
» Tend to relate to children’s feelings and their interactions with the people and situations in a certain environment.
» Include situations like separation from familiar caregiver; unexpected routines; new situations; changes/differences in environment; and feeling left out.
• Physical triggers:
» Tend to relate to the child’s physical state, health, or development.
» Include things like poor sleep; decreased physical endurance; and motor skill delays that can make an activity too challenging.
Recognizing the Rumble Stage
The ideal way to handle meltdowns is to prevent them from happening.
While this may sound a bit daunting, preventing meltdowns can be done by getting to know the child and recognizing signs that his or her anxiety may be increasing.
The time leading up to a meltdown is often referred to as the rumbling stage. At this point it is important to be observant. For example, we can pay attention to the physical cues that may precede a meltdown, such as…
• Ears or cheeks turning red.
• More rapid breathing.
• Blinking more or scrunching up eyes.
• Rocking (likely an attempt to self-soothe).
These kinds of reactions could have been triggered by what is going on around the child. So, again, being observant is important.
Paying attention to those triggers that may contribute to a child’s meltdown can help to prevent future meltdowns and to develop strategies that will allow the child to more successfully cope with future meltdowns.
Helping in the Rumble Stage
There is a window of opportunity to prevent the meltdown, but in order to take advantage of that opportunity, some strategies need to be in place ahead of time.
If you are like me, at this phase of the interaction when the meltdown seems to be on its way and the child’s anxiety appears to be increasing, my anxiety level is rising as well, and I am not able to think as clearly.
So having a plan is crucial to help us best help our children.
Examples of how to help a child in the rumble phase would be:
• Reduce or remove the trigger/s. For example, if the child is overwhelmed by a busy or loud classroom, calmly lead the child into a different room. Give them some time away. After they are calmed, they may be able to return to the classroom.
• Use a distraction. Distraction can be a very effective tool. Often it is as simple as pulling out a favorite toy, book, or snack.
• Take a sensory break. Say, “Let’s take a break” and then give the child permission to jump, hum, or push on a wall.
• Pray for and with the child in a low and calm voice. (I have found this to be calming for myself too because it helps me to focus on the love God has for my child.)
• Give a big bear hug. For some children, deep pressure (such as the kind of physical touch experienced by a big hug) is calming, and a hug can also be reassuring emotionally.
Do’s-and-Don’t’s Through a Meltdown
In spite of doing our best to identify triggers and recognize the rumbling stage, there will be times that a meltdown is going to happen. When it does, here is a list of do’s-and-don’t’s:
• Always display unconditional love.
• Wait and move slowly.
• If you know what is calming or comforting to the child, bring that activity or toy to him or her.
• Listen to verbal and non-verbal communication. (This can not only help the child to know they are heard, but can also give you clues to prevent the next meltdown.)
• Get down on their level and stay with the child, but give them space.
• Speak with low calming voice, maybe even a whisper, or not at all.
• Keep the child, yourself, and others safe.
• Do not rush to a response or expect a quick response from the child.
• Do not yell, scream, or even raise your voice to get their attention.
• Do not have several adults around the child all telling them things at the same time.
• Do not touch the child unexpectedly.
• Do not try to move the child.
• Do not make the child feel punished for who God created them to be. (Remember, a true meltdown is a reaction, not a behavior.)
• Do not force eye contact or have the expectation that if they are not looking at you they aren’t listening.