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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?

See results

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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    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 3 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Mel Carriere,

      I agree with you that your reaction to how your children behave is the key to how they will continue to behave. I made the mistake of becoming involved emotionally when my oldest son was 2-3 years old. I had many other "issues" on my mind that often left me irritable and unable to respond calmly. I highly recommend it though! And both of my boys have calmed down considerably, because I have calmed down too (imagine that!).

      Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

      I was fortunate to have two sons that were extremely calm, and I can't really take credit for their behavior, except that perhaps I was never one to react to any kind of emotional coercion from them starting when they were very small. Even so every child has his/her genetic material shaken and stirred at birth and there is no telling how each one will turn out, so the same techniques do not necessarily work on different children. You are right, butt smacking is not effective. I think I may have resorted to it once or twice out of my own frustration. Great hub.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi ologsinquito,

      That's too funny! I can only imagine what some people thought! My son hasn't given us the honor of meltdowning in public, but we have gotten our fair share at home! Thanks for reading!

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 4 years ago from USA

      This brought back fond memories of when my children used to have meltdowns in public places. It was always embarrassing. I have dark hair and olive skin. One time my very blond son started shouting "you, you, you, you put me down," as I was carrying him out of a store. I just hoped everyone who was watching realized I was his mother, even though we don't look alike.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi AVailuu, I may have to look into that Peaceful Parenting. Just the word Peaceful makes me happy! Since my son is now 6, the number of meltdowns has decreased which is good, but because of his age and depending on the reason he is mad, distractions don't always work for him. When he was younger yes! Now, my goal is to get him to understand why he is mad and what appropriate things he can do about it. Thanks for reading!!!

    • AVailuu profile image

      A. Cristen Vailuu 4 years ago from Augusta, Ga

      Cool article! I try to follow "peaceful parenting" techniques, and I read Dr. Laura Markham's blog/book. My son isn't at the age yet where he has actual melt downs. Even still, I wait out his tantrums by sitting next to him and staying calm. I pay attention to his cues, and when he's not completely freaking out I'll try to redirect his attention to something else.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Exactly Cat! I found great entertainment from walking in the woods just looking for "nothing." I think kids these days expect entertainment, so when it is not there, they don't know what to do. Sigh.....

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York

      Ha ha... I just had to use that today! I just hate when my kids bug me that they're bored! I try to remember that I used to do the same thing to my mother from time to time, but back in our day, we seemed to find something to do. We've been away a few times this summer, we go swimming and do other things, they have cable and electronics and plenty of toys. How on earth can they be bored? 'When I was your age, I didn't have half the things you did and I always found something to do!' lol.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Oh Cat,

      Yes, I do the same thing! And I also start some of my sentences with, "When I was your age......" Sigh.....

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York


      Remember how your mother used to use her spit to wipe something off your face and you hated it.... lol! I do that to my kids now! lol... no wonder my son's embarrassed in public :D

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Wow Cat! You said it! I can see my oldest getting a little red faced when I pamper him in public..... will try to milk it as much as I can at home!!!

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York


      Ha ha! I wouldn't give up my daughter for the world... but I could've had 5 boys and only one of her! lol. I don't care what anyone says... boys are just easier! You're so right!

      My son calls me Mommy at home, but as soon as someone else is around, his voice gets deeper and it's 'Mom'... lol. I remember dropping him off at school a couple of years ago (maybe 9 years old) and I went to give him a hug and kiss goodbye and he left me hanging! lol... It broke my heart because I get quite a few hugs and kisses all day, including tucking him in at night, yet he's at that 'embarrassed' age. I'm thinking/hoping that as he gets a couple of years older, he'll be cool with 'hugging me in public' again!

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Theater girl! Yes, it is good to know that we are not alone! I like that you have shared your story about your 8 year old.....that will give me a heads up for when my boy gets older! I think our dogs have allowed my son to calm down a bit too. It's amazing what animals can do for us!

      Thanks for reading!

    • Theater girl profile image

      Jennifer 4 years ago from New Jersey

      Thanks for this hub! My daughter started having these at about 4 and still can have them at 8. The length of each is shorter, and we work on coping skills with her now. Counting, breathing, going to her room and hugging her pet cat. (it works, who knows why) As she got older, telling her that I understood that she "felt out of control" seems to help. But I still use the calm ignoring as well. I am so glad others have gone through this! And thanks for separating these from a regular tantrum!

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Thanks Cat! I have nieces that are 11 and 13 and have watched them go through their "milestones" too. There is something quite special about each age! I surely don't want the cattiness that comes with girls! (I've been one of those girls!) With boys, hopefully, all I will have to worry about is them being crazy on their dirtbikes and four girls allowed until 18.....and they will still have to give me hugs forever! Right?

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York


      I'm so grateful that my kids are now 12 and 8, lol! I'm past the tantrum and the meltdown stage; now were at the 'zombie' and 'all kinds of drama' stages! Ha ha... I guess there's beautiful little milestones to be had at all ages!

      Seriously though, this is an excellent hub and you have some excellent advice... you just might save a mother some chunks of hair!

      Up and tons more! Sharing too!


    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 4 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi Deborah-Diane! It is good to know that there is a light!! Glad your daughter grew out of it! And yes, I think ignoring them has it's advantages! My son hasn't looked in the mirror at himself yet, but I have tried to videotape him and he HATES it when I do that! It's quite interesting to re-play it! Thanks for reading!

    • Deborah-Diane profile image

      Deborah-Diane 4 years ago from Orange County, California

      My children are grown now, but our youngest daughter used to have meltdowns. I tried to talk to her, calm her down, bribe her with treats and everything I could think of. Then one day I noticed that, while having her meltdown, she was watching herself in a mirror, as though she was checking to see if she was doing it convincingly enough! I decided to simply ignore the meltdowns and, gradually, they stopped. Today she is a successful adult ... and hasn't had a meltdown in decades! :)

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 5 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi sgbrown! No, I hope you don't have to use my advice...and hopefully the tantrums stay tantrums! My son started at 2 1/2 years old and will occasionally have them now and he is almost 6! Thank you for reading!

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      I was so fortunate with our daughter, she was such a good child. My husband always told me that I really had no idea how lucky I was. When the boys came to live with us, they were 10 and 6, so the meltdown age was over. Now, our recently seperated daughter and her 18 month old daughter are living with us and I have not seen any "meltdowns", but have seen many tantrums. It's a entirely different world for me! You have some great advice here, I hope I don't have to use it! LOL Voting this up, interesting and useful! :)

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 5 years ago from Ohio Valley

      Hi moonlake! Yes, you're right! It is good that he doesn't do it in public! I think they do it around those they trust the most (most likely the parents). It is those that they feel they can lose their control with. Whereas at school, they have to remain in control and have good behavior. It is all so interesting and I learn something new each day. Thank you for reading!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      Our granddaughter did this often and more so when it was time for bed. Her parents were worried about me babysitting her alone for fear she would have a melt down. She did start one and I put my arms around her and held her tight and told her, that her parents were fine and that it was time for her to go to bed and that I would lay down with her for a short time only. She went to sleep. She was old enough not to be doing this. I think the day she came home from the hospital she had a melt down. Ha ha. I was there 4 days and she was fine. I have no idea why she was good for me because she could sure make things awful for her parents.

      Enjoyed your hub and I know it is frustrating when kids have melt downs. I don't have the answers. It’s nice that he doesn’t do it in public. They grow out of it. Voted up.


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