Managing Meltdowns and Tantrums
A topic that comes up frequently in my ADHD and behaviour coaching practice is managing meltdowns and tantrums. In this blog post I am talking about the difference between tantrums and meltdowns and then looking at how to manage these behavioural responses. Before we start, I want to remind my readers that managing tantrums and meltdowns is challenging, upsetting, and frustrating. If you are struggling, reach out for support, connect with me as a behaviour coach or try a local Occupational Therapist, Behaviour Coach, or Counsellor. Having a plan to support your unique child and your unique family is key.
Tantrums vs Meltdowns
Both of these behavioural responses can look very similar, but they are actually very different. The key differences lie in triggers and control. How we respond to them is also different. I will be digging into how to respond over the next two weeks, but for now let’s look at how they are different.
First of all, tantrums are a very normal and healthy part of development. For a neurotypical child they start around 12-18 months old, get worse and then peak between 2-3 years old, and start to decrease after 4 years old. Tantrums are a method of communication when a child has trouble communicating their needs. Tantrums are also a healthy emotional response to processing an unwanted or unexpected “no.” Allowing your child to experience feelings of futility even if it means a tantrum, is very healthy and research supports that this experience will lead to healthier emotional regulation as they grow and develop. A key element of a tantrum is that your child will be able to stop on a dime if they get their way, this shows control. You might even notice your child glancing over at you throughout, showing awareness.
Meltdowns are an entirely different situation. Meltdowns are when a child is in a state of sensory overload and a fight or flight response is triggered. Meltdowns can happen at any age and both neurotypical children and children with neurological disorders can have them. Children with neurological disorders such as ASD and ADHD or mood disorders such as anxiety and OCD are more likely to struggle with frequent meltdowns due to sensitive and heightened nervous systems. It takes less to create the state of sensory overwhelm that a meltdown is triggered from. The key elements of a meltdown is that your child will be out of control. They won’t be able to respond to direction, close proximity to loved ones might make things worse, and they won’t be able to stop even if you resolve the original trigger.
If your child is struggling with meltdowns and you as a parent are overwhelmed, please reach out. Managing meltdowns through prevention and strategies in the moment is one of the topics that frequently comes up in my coaching practice.
Tantrums are a purposeful method of communicating that are a developmentally normal part of childhood. So how do you effectively deal with them? There are lots of experts in this field and they often have a variety of approaches, but many have the following in common:
* Ignore the bad: withdraw all attention that focuses on the object of the tantrum, even negative attention such as reprimands have been found to positively reinforce tantrum behaviour. This looks like calmly stating the expected behaviour simply and repeating when needed. Eg, “You will get your turn to play, after you wait your turn.”
* Feed the good: Lavish positive attention on the behaviour you would like to see. One approach is to acknowledge a sibling or peer nearby. Eg.“Thank you Sarah for waiting your turn. I am so proud of you for listening.” Follow this up by jumping on any effort by the child to calm down and praise in detail. “Thank you for calming down. I am so proud of you for working hard to control your body.”
* Avoid Negotiating: Don’t try to reason with a tantruming child, this can often escalate things further. You want to teach your child that negotiation is a skill that we practice when we are calm. Eg. “I would be happy to talk about other choices when you are calm and ready.”
*Reinforce Love and Connection: Throughout the tantrum provide proximity and reinforce love. This is a moment where your child is struggling to process difficult emotions and feelings of futility. Your job is to provide love and support as they process. Stay close and state something like, “I see that you are struggling, I love you, let me know when you are ready for a snuggle.”
Try these steps out and let me know how it goes for you and your child! Always simplify language to what is appropriate for your child’s age and stage. Note, tantrums are very common between 2-5 years old, but they can occur at older ages. The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is based on the level of control that a child has, not their age. Children with speech and developmental delays are more likely to experience tantrums at older ages due to challenges communicating wants and needs in other ways. Additionally, children that have learned that tantrums effectively get them what they want and need will continue to use this behavioural tool as they get older.
The easiest way to manage a meltdown or a tantrum is always to prevent one from occurring in the first place.
The basic plan is to KNOW and PLAN using information about your child’s sensory needs, their triggers, and what tools and techniques calm them down. This looks like knowing that feeling hungry, hot, and tired while wearing uncomfortable clothes is likely to put your child in a position to be easily triggered into a meltdown. Essentially they have less ability to cope with something going wrong because their nervous system is already feeling overwhelmed. Knowing what can calm them down and planning ahead by bringing your child’s favourite cuddle toy, snacks, and their favourite audiobook can help you to move onto the next step of intervention smoothly and before things escalate.
INTERVENE before the meltdown occurs once you start to see “rumblings.” Since tantrums are more focused on the specific trigger and are an “in control” response they do not often have “rumblings,” BUT they are certainly more likely to occur when your child is in an uncomfortable or escalated state. Meltdowns because they are a stress response often show signs before they fully escalate, these are called “rumblings.” This can look like, tapping a foot, lowering the voice, fidgeting, rapid movements. When you see this occurring, intervene with your calm down tools or an escalation plan that you have made as a family or with your child’s support team.
Meltdowns are hard to deal with, but as always my focus is always to just start with information. The more you know about your child, the more you can plan, prepare, and support them.
A question I get, ALL THE TIME is: “But what do I do in the middle of a meltdown? Like, EXACTLY what do I do?”
The tough answer is that every child and every situation is different, which means that unfortunately there isn’t a perfect one-size fits all script. But what I can give you is this general plan to follow. Next time you are mid-meltdown with your child, try following these steps.
Meltdown Wind Down
So your child had a meltdown, you stayed calm, you followed the steps, now what? Try these strategies to help your child move out of their meltdown calmly, feeling loved and supported.
Do not move onto these steps until your child is showing signs that their meltdown is resolving. Notice their body starting to relax, awareness calming back into their eyes and body, their voice calming, and especially with an older child signs of emotional awareness such as sadness or embarrassment. Too much input, mid-meltdown can escalate further, but as your child regains control they are ready for love, reassurance, and support to calm down fully and process.
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