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Meltdowns 101

Updated on January 6, 2016

What IS a Meltdown?

When I often talk about the meltdowns my husband and I go through with my five year old, I often get responses like, "Just smack his butt!" or "Oh, my son does that too! He threw himself on the floor before for like 10 minutes!"

I just shake my head, screaming to myself, "Oh, you just don't get it!"

For parents that go through meltdowns, we know that 1.) Smacking butts DOES NOT work for them, and 2.) A meltdown is NOT a 10 minute tantrum.

Let me elaborate:

Tantrum: When a child gets ticked off about something either not going his/her way, or not getting something he/she wants. A tantrum will begin and end in roughly 5-10 minutes. Tantrums can occur in public, in the car, at the grocery store, or when you are on the phone. They are definitely not fun, but because they are not long lasting, they can be dealt with better, and with little stress.

Meltdown: When a child realizes that he has lost control of something and doesn't have his/her choice, whether it be something he/she wants or something not going his/her way. Meltdowns consists of intense screams and cries, as well as throwing objects, hitting things (or people), knocking over chairs, kicking the back of seats in the car, getting red-faced and vein-popping in the forehead, and destroying things in his/her path. The key to the meltdown is that the duration of the meltdown is usually 45 minutes to over an hour. Yes, you read that correctly.

Poltergeist chairs! No, not a ghost, just my meltdown-ing son!
Poltergeist chairs! No, not a ghost, just my meltdown-ing son! | Source

Stages of a Meltdown

Since I am considering myself an expert in the Severe Meltdown area, I have come up with various stages that the meltdown goes through. Knowing these stages helps you prevent and/or prepare for what to do.

1.) The Trigger

  • The meltdown begins with a trigger. SOMETHING must set him/her off. Now, many people may think, well, just don't set him/her off! It's not that easy, trust me, or I would not be writing this. A trigger can be anything from him dropping his quarter on the floor and not wanting to pick it up, or me running out of bananas and he wants more RIGHT NOW. Very rarely is the trigger something more important, like he has fallen on the steps and hurt his knee. Either way though, it is the official start of the meltdown

2.) The Escalation

  • At this point, the meltdown begins to escalate. The screams and yells begin. He/she is urging you to "fix" whatever it was that began the meltdown (the "trigger"). As a parent, fixing the problem doesn't always teach our children appropriately. For example, when I run out of bananas and he happens to get ticked off at this, I cannot jump in the car and get bananas. He has to LEARN that I can get bananas the next time I will go to the store and figure out an alternative.
  • The Escalation includes, but are not limited to: screams, yells, crying, throwing objects, knocking objects over (see poltergeist chairs in the picture), ripping objects, and saying "I hate you!"
  • Escalation time is approximately 15-25 minutes in length.

3.) The Climax

  • As in any great story, a climax is always the highest or most exciting point, right? Well, with a meltdown, the climax is when we know that things cannot get much worse for his/her behavior.
  • A climax involves using physical force against one (or more parental figures in the house), along with red-faced screams and incoherent speech.
  • The only thing to do during the climax is to wait for it to end. Often, I will notice a change in my child's facial expressions during this time. He has a look on his face like he just doesn't even remember what he was originally mad about, but his body is telling him to continue screaming. Makes no sense, but it happens in my house.
  • Climax time for a meltdown is approximately 15-30 minutes in length....yes, it's the longest and most difficult stage.

4.) The Cooldown

  • I feel like I am describing an exercise here! Warm down.....Anyway, the Cooldown occurs when exhaustion sets in. You can usually see the exhaustion on their faces. At this point, they either move onto something else, or go to sleep. The scary part is, after a meltdown, the child acts like it never occurred. Even trying to talk about it after the fact seems pointless.


What Do You Do?

Are there any underlying causes?

  • Hunger?
  • Being tired?
  • Needing to have a bowel movement?

When a meltdown begins, it is important to note when they occur and what the trigger is. Sometimes, meltdowns occur when children are overly tired or are hungry. It is good to be prepared by making sure plenty of snacks are on hand and good bedtime routines are happening. Anticipate when your child will be hungry again (usually every few hours for young children). Children also need over 10 hours of sleep (11-12 is ideal). In addition, knowing when your child is having bowel movements is also something to consider! Yes, when my child goes for two days with no #2, it can get ugly! Increase fiber in the diet, eliminate dairy for a few days, and if necessary, offer incentives to poop! I have a "Poop Chart" in my lie.

Other steps to follow:

  • Remain calm: This is the single most important step to remember for the parent. It is no use getting worked up and putting yourself on the same level as your child. It only elevates your blood pressure even more!
  • Intervene ONLY when he/she is hurting themselves or someone else. Otherwise, it is best to just let them get it out of their system.
  • Can you talk to them? I have tried several times to "have a talk" but without luck. Talking to them seems to aggravate them more. Again, letting the meltdown run it's course is the best choice.
  • Can you use time out? Sometimes, we can get our meltdowning child to go to his room to "scream it out." Other times, he will just refuse to stay in one place.
  • What about smacking them? From experience, we have found that smacking them only increases the intensity of the meltdown.

Keep in mind this: My child has these extreme meltdowns ONLY in our home (and sometimes around my parents). ALL other times, such as in public places or in school, he is the PERFECT CHILD. After speaking to my pediatrician, we've concluded that if he can control his behavior, then he knows what he is doing. In other words, having control over it means that there is not an underlying disorder, such as autism, oppositional defiant disorder, or bipolar disorder, etc. As I have researched them all!

Talking about this with professionals is worth it!

  • Speak to your pediatrician, a counselor, and a child behavior specialist.
  • Gather strategies and see what works and what doesn't with your child. I have found that focusing excessively on the POSITIVE behavior, gets good results.
  • Your spouse/partner MUST be on the same page. It is imperative that you both follow the same beliefs and responses with your meltdown-ing child. Any inconsistencies will confuse your child and cause the meltdowns to continue longer.


Have you experienced a "Meltdown" with your child?

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Update on Meltdowns 101!!

I think it is important to note that as our children get older, the meltdowns change. My son is now 8 years old and fortunately, he no longer has the 45 minute screaming meltdowns (so that's good news to those parents wondering if it ends!). HOWEVER, he DOES still scream and yell and get very defiant when he does not get his way. He has some serious control issues, that when something goes beyond his liking, he does not want to cooperate.

Since my son responds well to visual stimuli and consistent consequences, we have since implemented a reward chart which consists of many blank boxes with a "toy/$" sign on certain boxes. The goal is to get through each day without any warnings for behavior. They can get TWO warnings (unless it is a serious infraction). After two warnings, a toy (or something they love to do) is taken from them for the rest of the day. If they make it through the day with no toy taken, they get a star on the chart. After so many stars, a toy or amount of $ is given (I stick to less than $10). Since my kids are older, I have a longer duration between when they earn toys/$. For younger kids, I would have a shorter duration and do dollar store toys and "prizes."

This may not work for everyone, but to my son, it is motivating for him. He has to know which rules were broken though, so he helped me come up with three major rules:

  • Be nice (which includes keeping hands and feet to themselves)
  • Be respectful (which includes talking right to parents)
  • Listen

Both the rules and reward chart are displayed in our house!

In addition, we talk to him about what to do with our anger, which he definitely has. We talk about appropriate ways to deal with anger too. I also make sure I model ways that I deal with my own anger. And of course, it doesn't hurt to have a family counselor to talk to together. We haven't reached this point yet, but we have a list!

I hope this article has been helpful in some way and has reminded you that you are not alone in your child-raising journey!


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