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How to navigate the messiness of meltdowns (theirs...and yours)

Black and white photo of a grumpy baby
What to do when everyone's losing it

In the spirit of full transparency, I have no business writing an article on managing meltdowns. I feel like I was sooo bad at it.

And there were so many of them that I should have gotten better over time, right?

NOPE. Nope. Nopety nope.

I had two livewires close in age and there were many episodes that, even now 20 years later, I still lay awake feeling guilty about. The sting of feeling so inept…of having done a bad job when I really, really intended to do a good job is a pretty ouchy spot in my soul.

It’s not JUST that livewires have bigger meltdowns….there are sooo many more of them. I had days when I was able to be calm and present for the first one or two explosions of the day, but by the fourth or fifth one, I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin.

I honestly think the hardest part was that I really didn’t have a map for navigating them. They were just….SO…massive…and long…and hysterical…AND FREQUENT. And they didn’t respond to what were, at the time, the go-to strategies; which always felt like putting a band-aid on a head wound. (Timeouts?…I mean, seriously?)

Also, truth be told, I didn’t really have a handle on my own intensity or capacity to be sensorily triggered, so I was without a paddle in a very, very stormy sea.

How to navigate those messy, chaotic meltdowns

We now have better information about the causes and components of a meltdown and that it has nothing to do with a child “trying to get their way.” Meltdowns are the result of system overload. In the middle of a meltdown, children often seem “not in their right mind” —almost like a storm that’s got to blow through. There is often no stopping a meltdown, and ignoring makes it worse.

For sensitive livewires, meltdowns can result from sensory overload combined with frustration. Meltdowns at stores are the perfect illustration of this – big spaces, with bright lights and lots of people, create the kindling, and the first “no” that happens is all the match that’s needed. Kaboom. Meltdown right in the middle of Target.

Laura Petix, a pediatric Occupational Therapist explains in her article, "What you need to know about a sensory meltdown," that sensitive children absorb a variety of sensory “shocks” during the day: loud noises, lots of transitions, bright lights, too many people. Each of these takes a toll on a child’s ability to hold it together. At the end of a long day, it may take just the tiniest slight or surprise (“Oh no, your green cup is in the dishwasher.”) can be enough to light the fuse. Sensory-sensitive children just have a thinner barrier to the outside world—sooo much more is detected and felt. Think about what the world feels like when you have a sunburn. You feel pain with every movement and piece of clothing. Being “emotionally sunburned” all day, every day can take a toll.

So, what can you do?

Learn as much as you can about your child’s meltdowns. If they’re happening frequently, consider whether a sensory processing evaluation/assessment could give you some additional insight and tools for helping them with regulation. Here’s a great article on understanding your child’s meltdown language. Having a better grasp on where these episodes come from, and having an intentional plan for how to navigate the meltdowns can save everyone so much stress and strain (and some of those late-night regret sessions).

Some great what-to-do-in-the-moment tips from the folks at Generation Mindful:

1. Center yourself. Take a deep breath. I used to get into a “floppy” mindset – loose, non-reactive. This is not always achievable after a half-dozen meltdowns, but one good deep breath and a moment to get in the right mental zone can’t hurt.

2. Don’t throw fuel on the fire. This is a big one that I was very, very guilty of doing. During a meltdown, children are operating from the more primitive centers of their brain and are unable to think logically. Petix suggests you “avoid reasoning with them, asking questions, or making demands as it will only further dysregulate and escalate their emotions and behaviors.” Save the debriefing for after the storm has passed.

3. Reduce the sensory input. Turning lights down and go to a smaller room, if you can. This is also when you can create (during a calm time), a “calming corner” or a space where you have things that help your child calm down (clay, a tent, cushions to crash into, a weighted blanket).

4. Validate feelings (once the storm has passed). Here are the folks at Generation Mindful again:

  • Reflect: Repeat what you have heard and clarify.

So, you are saying you are upset because you wanted grandma to pick you up from school today. Is this right?

  • Validate: When validating emotions, use words such as because or and instead of a dismissive but.

TRY THIS: “It makes sense that you’re upset right now because you really wanted to go to grandma’s house, and because it’s hard to not get what you want sometimes.”

INSTEAD OF: “I see you feel mad, but we don’t act this way.”

  • Support: Let them know they will get through this, and you are there for them.

TRY THIS: “I know this is hard and I will stay with you while it is hard.

5. When all else fails, just be there

There will be times (probably many of them) when none of this works. When all else fails, just be their anchor while the storm is raging. Keep them safe. Keep yourself safe…but just be there. We don't actually have to always make it better. (I wish I had known that one.)

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Macall has a B.S. in Human Biology from Stanford University and an M.A. in Applied Psychology from Antioch University, Seattle where she is a Senior Lecturer in the graduate Counseling Psychology program. She has conducted and presented research worldwide on sleep training advice, parenting, and the effect of temperament on sleep. She is also a certified Gentle Sleep Coach in private practice as well as with the women’s telehealth platform, Maven Clinic. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, alert, intense children, and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.

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