Meltdowns happen in response to being overwhelmed by sensory, emotional, or physical triggers. These can include being hungry, tired, feeling unwell, pain, emotional reasons or too much or too little sensory stimulation. Often the child will be seeking sensory stimulation or change, or will try to avoid sensory stimulation. The goal here is to gain control of the overwhelming situation. This is call self regulation. Meltdowns are different from tantrums. Tantrums are goal driven behaviors in the presence of an audience.
There is an arc to the meltdown. You need to know that they are complex events that include various parts of the brain as well as a hormonal response. The body needs time to metabolize and control the various systems. We can assist in how it feels for the child. We can not control the complex biological events that are occuring. The first thing you need to do is figure out what was happening before (including what may have happened earlier in the day). Also consider what was the behavior (screaming, crying, biting, hitting etc) and how did it end. How long was the behavior from start to finish and how did it ramp up and down?
Sensory Input: Help your child regulate their sensory system by either providing input or removing input. You can consider using lotion for a calming hand or foot massage. You can turn off all sources of noise or provide noise cancelling headphones. These strategies will be unique to your child. You should create a ‘toolkit’ for your family of go-to strategies that you can use.
Feeling Grounded: Have your child long sit on the floor, find a corner to sit back into, or lie down. The more their body is in contact with the ground the more sensory input is being received by their brain.
Provide safe movement: a safe way to provided the deep movement and rhythmic pressure would be to use an exercise ball to sit and bounce on.
Music: Music can be a window into self regulation. Whether it is rhythms or their favorite sing a longs or songs, having music available can help to bring calm to the child. Using headphones can serve as cancelling out the non-preferred noise and helps with localization of sound. Headphones are very socially acceptable and easy to carry. Tip: listen to music when the child is calm so they link music to that feeling in their body.
Sensory Bottles and Fidgets: Sensory bottles and fidgets have become quite popular lately. They are found in most large box stores as well as smaller toy stores. They are reasonably priced and can be easily kept in a small bag, in your car, or in the child’s pocket. Using the fidget when calm reinforces this feeling and reduces frustration when presented during a meltdown.
If you are at home you and your child can create a safe and calm space that they can use to help them feel better. You can advocate for a calm space in other familiar settings like a classroom or a daycare. Children need to be supported to regulate on their own. It takes time and practice.