Tantrums and meltdowns are among the biggest challenges of parenting. They’re hard to understand, hard to prevent, and even harder to respond to effectively when they’re happening.
What is a meltdown?
A meltdown is an intense response to overwhelming circumstances — a complete loss of behavioral control. People with autism often have difficulty expressing when they are feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed, which leads to an involuntary coping mechanism — a meltdown in which the person temporarily loses control of their behaviour.
This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways.
A meltdown is a reaction to an overwhelming experience. If your family member or the person you support has meltdowns, identify what is overwhelming for them.
Complete a diary over a period of time. Record what happened before, during and after each meltdown. Patterns may emerge.
You may find that meltdowns occur at particular times, in particular places, or when something particular has happened.
The cause of meltdowns varies from child to child, and much depends upon the situation itself, but here are some common trigger points:-
1.)Sensory Overload:- Can be because children with autism may have hypersensitivities in one or more of their senses, and some senses can be under-sensitive, which can provoke sensory overload with too much stimulation, followed by panic and a meltdown. Triggers can be :-
👉Lining up during prayer time, especially touching
👉Yelling by parents
👉Yelling by students
2.) Information Overload
Autistic children may become confused when too much complexity comes at them at once, such as:-
a) Too many instructions or demands.
b)Language that is not understood. This can lead to stress, anxiety, and physical pain in some children.
3.) Emotional Overload
When a child has problems expressing themselves, it ordinarily is too complicated for them to understand their own feelings.
Children with autism may find it difficult to ask for help when they become anxious, and when they don’t have the intrinsic mechanisms to calm down, their emotions become too much to handle and a meltdown ensues.
Common meltdown warning signs in children with autism are:-
A) Physical signs of anxiety or confusion, such as fretting(visibly anxious), restlessness, or stimming(self-stimulatory behavior).
B) Asking to leave or to take a break.
If your child asks or signs to leave the area or take a break, the situation or environment may be overstimulating.
Stages of meltdown (pattern occurring before, during & after a meltdown)
What You Can Do in a Meltdown
Remember this key element, you cannot avoid meltdowns entirely. As a parent, your first goal is to remain calm and keep yourself & your loved ones safe.
➤Safety is a must.
Have a strategy in place to protect your child and yourself from harm. Move to a quiet place, away from the stimulation that may have evoked the overload until the meltdown is over. When you are in a public area, this requires pre-planning, such as knowing where a quiet place is that you can take your child to.
➤Have a plan beforehand
What to do if the person feels anxious, such as a calming playlist to listen to at the shops or a stress ball in their pocket.
➤Build relaxation time into the routine.
The person will generally feel calmer and therefore better able to manage when something that could trigger a meltdown, occurs.
What that means will vary from person to person, and may consist of :- quiet activities, taking a walk, listening to music, playing a computer game, reading, doing puzzles, using fiddle toys, or more strenuous activities, eg jumping on a trampoline.
Find 15 easy & effective self-relaxation techniques that you can incorporate in your child’s life, which he/she can use during times when they feel anxious/overwhelmed in this article 👇
➤ Expressing emotions
Support the person to find ways to understand and express their emotions appropriately before they get overwhelmed, and find ways to make your own communication more easily understandable.
Things you can try include:
👉 Social stories
👉 Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)
👉 Written information instead of verbal
👉 Modifying your verbal communication e.g by speaking in short, clear sentences (2–3 word phrases instead of a long sentence)
👉 Use of an emotions chart to ask your child- “how are you feeling? Show me on this chart”
SOME DO’S & DON’T’S DURING A MELTDOWN
× Do not try to reason with them :-
Since, during a meltdown, the flight/fight response takes over, the children cannot use the part of their brain that thinks logically. Hence, even if its tempting to reason with your child, it will make them angrier.
× Do not make demands:-
Telling your child to “stop” or “calm down” isn’t going to make them stop or calm down. Avoid making demands when child is having a meltdown. Focus on helping him to calm down, to relax.
× Do not yell :-
Yelling makes you appear threatening & anything that seems threatening during that time will worsen the situation.
× Do not be Judgemental :-
The most common mistake that parents do is, blaming them, making them feel as unintelligent, ignoring their child’s feelings, or, trying to lecture them during meltdowns. As tempting it might be, IT MAKES THE SITUATION WORSE. Moreover, this definitely affects your child’s self-esteem in the long run.
➼ Do Keep Silence :-
Total silence can help your child calm down & start seeing things more reasonably.
➼ Do- Decrease Stimulation:-
Regardless of what caused the meltdown, minimizing any stimulation helps your child to calm down. You can turn off the TV, dim lights, or have other people leave the room, if possible.
➼ Do find a distraction
You can try to distract your child by offering their favorite toy, or showing them a funny video they might like, or offering to do their favorite calming activity.
However, this technique works in the early stages of meltdown.
➼ DO- Validate their feelings, not their aggressive actions:-
Everybody has a right to feel a certain way about any given situation. So, giving validation to their feelings shows your child that his feelings and thoughts are accepted by you which is very effective to calm him down (whereas ignoring his feelings can do just the opposite)!
Ex- It makes sense that you are upset right now because you wanted to wear the blue dress, not the yellow one- & its hard to not get what we want sometimes…
➼ DO teach them self-relaxation strategies before hand
When you practice some self-relaxation strategies beforehand with your children, they are likely to use them, or you can remind them to use any calming strategy at the early stage of a meltdown.
Find:- 15 easy & effective self relaxation strategies in this article:👇
Lastly, I would say that, you may not be able to stop or slow down a full-blown meltdown with distractions or a quiet space. A meltdown may simply be an eruption that must fizzle out on its own. Your job is to remain calm and keep both you and your loved one safe.
Prevention is your best defensive tool. Keep practicing and do not expect perfection. Your child will learn from you, learn how to communicate his or her basic needs and anxieties, non-verbal or not. Even though meltdowns may still occur, know that they will reduce over time.
Happy parenting to all my readers!
About the writer :-
The writer’s name is Abhipsa Parida. She is an occupational therapist specialised in pediatrics and has been handling kids with special needs since 5 years. She is quite experienced and skillful in observation, assessment and planning intervention for kids with special needs. She uses evidence based practice and is very creative and updated in her approach while handling kids with special needs. She has her own clinic in Bhubaneswar and has handled many kids of different age groups with varying needs.
If you have any queries, you can mail them at- email@example.com