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Toddler Tantrum or Meltdown?

If you spend any time scrolling parent blogs or social media, you’ll inevitably come across anecdotes of toddlers having tantrums over their toast being cut the wrong way or leaving a favorite park. Tantrums are a big burst in anger or frustration in young children. They are typical and expected part of toddler development, and in many ways, are related to skill deficits. At this point, a child cannot yet understand and express all that they are experiencing, and that is frustrating! This is true for both autistic and allistic children. With teaching, patience, and empathy, tantrums lessen over time for most children as they are better able to express their needs and process their emotions.

Often the words “meltdown” and “tantrum” are used interchangeably for young children, but it is important to note that for individuals on the autism spectrum, these words describe two distinct experiences. The autistic community describes a meltdown as a complete overload of a person’s system and senses, which can result in a temporary loss of control over one’s body or ability to process information (source). We think of tantrums as something that kids ultimately outgrow, but meltdowns often persist for people on the autism spectrum without the right supports. You may not know right away if your child is experiencing a typical tantrum or a meltdown, and that’s okay. The good news is that our response to both tantrums and meltdowns can be very similar. As adults, we are there to be a calm, supportive presence for our kids, modeling how to handle big feelings and giving them a safe space to process them. Below is more information on how to determine if your child is experiencing a meltdown and how to help when they are going through one.

Meltdowns

Most parents can very clearly describe when their child has experienced a meltdown, even if they have never heard the term before. “It just feels different” is a phrase that is often said. What a meltdown looks like will be very specific to your child. Over time, you may also notice warning signs that a meltdown might happen. Pay attention to things your child does right before they reach the point that they are completely overwhelmed. Intervene beforehand if you can. However, even when managing the environment and potential triggers, meltdowns can still happen. Everybody is doing the best they can.

During a meltdown, it may seem like your child is out-of-control of their body. They will not be easily redirected to another activity. They will likely not be able to communicate or process instructions well. It might seem like it is occurring “out of the blue.” It might occur on days where there have been a lot of demands, schedule changes, excitement, poor sleep, etc. During a meltdown, we should not teach new skills, like we may try to do during a tantrum. After a meltdown, your child will likely look very tired and may need to rest. It is very scary to feel out-of-control and a meltdown can be a traumatic experience for a child. The number one priority for caregivers during a meltdown is safety. Below are some strategies to consider when responding to meltdowns.

  • Safety: Clear the area of unsafe items that can be thrown or are breakable. If your child is in an unsafe area, try to gently guide them to a part of the house or corner of the room that is safer. Block access to other areas that are not safe (e.g., outside).
  • Avoid instructions: Limit verbal instruction/talking during this time. It is likely that your child cannot process what you are saying. Lots of talking or instruction may overload them further.
  • Tune in to the environment: During a meltdown, your child’s senses might be on overdrive. Look around the environment and try to dampen the sensory input if you can. Examples of this include turning down bright lights or moving away from a loud room (more information).
  • Stay calm: We want to model calm for them. Keep your body language and voice relaxed as best you can.
  • Be available: This is a balance between giving space and being ready to give assistance if needed. If your child is aggressive, you may need to back up to avoid being hit but try to not leave them unattended during this time. It is important for your child to know you are present and they are not alone. Meltdowns are scary for everyone. If you are upset or need a break, tell them “I’ll be right back” and go to another room briefly (if they are in a safe space) or switch out with another caregiver.
  • Co-regulate: Young children do not have all the skills they need to calm down quickly. If your child is coming down from a meltdown (no longer aggressive towards you or throwing items actively) offer physical touch (holding hands, hug, laying next to you) and model breathing in and out slowly. Your child may imitate you, but even if they do not or cannot imitate, continue to model. You can say phrases like “let’s calm down together” and “I am here” but keep talking to a minimum. If your child does not want physical touch or wants to be alone, do not force it. Help your child get items that help them calm down (blanket, pacifier, favorite item). Offer water or food.
  • Slow reentry: Following a meltdown, your child may be very tired and need to rest. Limit instructions during this time. If the meltdown was the result of a previously given instruction, do not reintroduce immediately following a meltdown. The meltdown was likely not related to the original demand at all and may reagitate them.
  • Reflect and restructure: Keep track of when meltdowns occurred and what happened during that day. Were there lots of transitions and demands given that day? Was your child in an over-stimulating or new environment? Did a change in routine occur? Did they sleep poorly? If you start to notice a pattern, try to make adjustments so that many of these triggers are not presented at the same time.
  • Intentional time: Coaching your child through their emotions is a healthy and loving way to parent. It is also important that your child can access this one-on-one time with you in other ways when they are not upset. Set aside intentional time with your child every day to really connect with them. This could be as little as 5-10 minutes a day. Get down on the floor and follow their lead with toys, watch their favorite show with them and comment on what is happening, delight in the things that they love. Over time, the hope is that your child can come to you to connect and calm down before a meltdown. Teaching them ways to get your undivided attention throughout the day will help them towards this goal.
  • Learn from autistic adults: Learning about meltdowns from autistic adults who have experienced them first-hand is an invaluable way to gain insight into what your child is feeling and will help you provide the best support for them. Mary Janca, a self-advocate and high-school teacher, has written about her own experiences with meltdowns. Read her entry.

 

More information:

A Parent’s Perspective on Handling Meltdowns

Shutting Down Like an Overloaded Computer

 

Maggie Zoller, MA, BCBA, is an ASNC Clinical Professional in the Triangle region and can be reached at mzoller@autismsociety-nc.org.

ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or clinical@autismsociety-nc.org.

 

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