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He’s Having a Meltdown! Four Possible Triggers—and How to React

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In my last post, I suggested that we should appreciate meltdowns for what they are: a child’s way of signaling that he needs something from the adults around him—or from his environment.  When a child experiences a meltdown or tantrum or acts aggressively, he is communicating that he has exceeded his ability to intentionally control his emotions and behaviors.

Of course, we want children who feel overwhelmed or can’t regulate their emotions to find ways to ask for help. But by the time a meltdown or tantrum happens, the child’s brain has already shifted into a “red” fight-or-flight mode, and the ability to reach out with words is compromised by the state of his autonomic nervous system.

How to help children in these moments? It’s useful to consider four categories of triggers for emotional and behavioral meltdowns.  Think of the child’s observable behavior as the visible tip of an iceberg.  These categories are the larger part of the iceberg that’s beneath the water’s surface, concealed from view. Understanding the hidden cause can help you formulate an appropriate response.

The child’s physical body.  Often, what underlies a behavior is a process in a child’s body. Some examples: inadequate sleep, fluctuating blood-sugar levels, illness, physical pain or even something as simple as constipation.  Any of these can decrease a child’s thresholds for emotional and behavioral control. The result—particularly when we ask the child to do things that exceed her ability to comply —is a meltdown.

The solution is to pinpoint what the child’s body needs. If bad dreams kept the child up all night, then reduce demands on the child, and help her get some sleep as soon as is practical.  What’s needed isn’t to somehow “fix” the child’s behavior, but rather to address whatever physical needs led to the meltdown.

The child’s sensory experiences. We all experience the world through our sensory systems: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Then there are the vestibular system (movement in space), the proprioceptive system (sensations in muscles and joints) and the interoceptive system (internal sensations). All of these affect a child’s subconscious sense of “brain-body” safety. When children experience over-reactivity in one or more of these areas, these sensory experiences can trigger behavioral reactions.

To determine whether sensory experiences are the cause of a particular meltdown, it’s useful to keep track of behaviors and see if meltdowns tend to happen around the same time as certain sensory experiences. If your child consistently has a tantrum during haircuts or hair washing, for example, she may be experiencing over-reactivity in her tactile system. Likewise, if your child refuses certain foods based on how they smell, he may have over-reactivity in his olfactory (sense of smell) system. If extreme sensory over-reactions are causing concern, a pediatric occupational therapist may be able to offer a helpful evaluation and suggestions for support. The Star Institute’s website offers excellent technical and practical information on sensory processing challenges.

Feelings and Emotions. Fear, hypervigilance and anxiety come from how a child makes sense of experiences in his body and mind. Sometimes, children experience stress and quickly feel overwhelmed, triggering a fight-or-flight response resulting in a meltdown. This can all happen very quickly— often well before a child is aware of the feelings or can plan how to feel better. 

To figure out the cause, pay attention to the child’s body language and facial expression—especially the areas around the eyes. Are they wide open? Darting around?  Are they downcast, or calm and happy? The eyes are the polygraph of the state of one’s autonomic nervous system, says neuroscientist Stephen Porges.  Is the child’s body relaxed and comfortable? Or is she pacing and displaying signs of stress? When a child’s facial expressions and posture suggest a stress response, it’s best to scale back your expectations and approach instead with warmth and understanding, thereby helping the child back onto the green pathway of social engagement.

Thoughts and Ideas. A child may have an active mind that easily senses threats to his well-being. Encountering a challenging problem on a math test, for example, he might quickly conclude that he isn’t smart enough to pass the test, and experience an automatic reaction that triggers a meltdown, even before he is aware of the thought.  The key to helping children avoid such catastrophic reactions to thoughts and ideas is to help them talk about what’s going on inside.  Discussing one’s feelings can help calm the body’s reaction to stress. In Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel’s words, “If we can name it we can tame it.”  Watch the child to detect signs of physiological distress and work to prevent the meltdown so that you can compassionately support the child and help her counter the negative thoughts and ideas.

Of course, you can’t always identify what caused a meltdown. Meltdowns and tantrums are simply a signal that children have exceeded their capacity to cope and they need supportive adults to gently help them through the moment.

My latest book, Beyond Behaviors describes a neurodevelopmental paradigm shift in how we can support children with persistent behavioral challenges. Join our newsletter at the bottom of the page and a growing community of parents and professionals pushing for more compassionate approaches to support behaviorally challenged children.

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