Meltdown SOS!


“Meltdown SOS! Survival toolkit”

Does your child or loved one have really frequent mega-meltdowns? Are you all exhausted by them? We have often been so exhausted by our children’s frequent meltdowns that we have been simply unable to think straight about long term solutions because simply getting through each day has been such a struggle. It is a really really hard place to be.  

This article has some tips to enable you to reduce the number of meltdowns enough so that you have the energy to put in place some longer term strategies.  If your child is having frequent really big explosions it is a sign that they may have either some unmet sensory processing needs or some other unmet need. We recommend that you sign up to the ‘sensory supers’ programme and join our community as we journey together towards sensory health. That will help you to understand and heal the underlying issues that are at the root cause of your child or loved one’s behaviour. Until then, the following tips may help you all to cope with day-to-day life.

This article has 4 sections: 

  1. ‘Code red meltdowns’ is for dangerous scary behaviour where your child has just really lost it. 
  2. ‘Code amber meltdowns’ is for really disruptive angry distressed behaviour but which isn’t scary and dangerous like a code red.
  3. ‘Everyday habits’ contains tips for things to do daily that may help to reduce the frequency of the meltdowns.
  4. ‘What not to do’ is what to avoid in order to prevent your child’s behaviour worsening or becoming more frequent.
  1. ‘Code red meltdowns’.  These are situations where your child is so angry that they are really hurting other people by punching, kicking, biting or throwing things at other people, and where they are continuing to do this and refusing to stop. They are in the ‘fight’ mode of the ‘fight or flight’ stress response. Sometimes they can get stuck in this mode and their behaviour continues long after the actual trigger.  These are some actions you can take to keep yourselves safe and shift them out of fight mode. Focus on shifting them out of fight mode and calming them down completely before you try to correct or discipline them. The stress response hormones may be coursing through their blood stream for up to 30 mins after they appear to have calmed down so don’t rush it.   Which strategy is best depends on their size, personality, and what you find works for them:
  1. Wrap their whole body in a stretchy blanket or duvet, but don’t wrap it round their head.  This means they can’t hurt you or others, and they can fight against the stretch of the blanket.  You can then turn this into a game of ‘wrap you in a blanket’ where you unwrap them and then catch them and wrap them up again. 
  2. Turn them upside-down.  This sensory strategy is surprisingly effective because it gives maximum vestibular input which is calming.  
  3. Have a big cushion handy and put it between you and them so they can hit the cushion and not you.
  4. If possible, remove other people and pets from the room and separate siblings into different rooms. Sometimes removing the audience stops the behaviour.
  5. In this state your child will have very limited ability to process verbal instructions, so either use body language instead of words, or just use single words rather than sentences.
  6. Make sure your body language is not confrontational – it can help to avoid direct eye contact and to try if possible to be side-by-side with your child rather than facing them directly.
  7. Sometimes, just sometimes, doing something yourself that is totally goofy, bizarre, funny and a massive distraction can work, especially for sibling fights. For example, deciding to try and sing their favourite pop song very loud with all the wrong words, telling a really bad immature joke about poo, or putting on the wrong shoes and pretending everything is fine whilst walking out the house. 

More details for each specific level and the reasons why these things work can be found in membership of the Sensory Super System

2.‘Code amber meltdowns’. 

This is the state below ‘code red’ but still very disruptive and distressed.  Our own children will do things like throwing objects around the room, shouting loudly, swearing, damaging stuff, or running round manically and being provocative and rude.  In our family this can escalate into ‘code red’ if not dealt with quickly.  These behaviours can be a sign your child is in the ‘flight’ part of their ‘fight/flight’ stress response system. One person in a family who is in this state can make everyone else feel unsettled really quickly too. The strategies set out below work because they help to regulate your child’s nervous system. Experiment and find out which ones work best for your child. 

  1. Loud rhythmic music preferably with a good strong beat including drums.
  2. A very crunchy snack like carrots.
  3. Something very cold, for instance a very cold flannel on the head, or frozen peas, or ice to crunch.
  4. Give them a fruit smoothie or a ‘thickie’ and a straw to suck it up with.
  5. A big squeezy hug.
  6. Turning upside down, either on the sofa or by doing a handstand against a wall, or being held upside down by the ankles.
  7. Pushing their hands against a wall, or against your hands, as hard as they can manage.
  8. Having a ‘safe nest’ to retreat to, for instance a play tent in their bedroom which has cushions, soft toys and soft lighting.
  9. Use either just body language, or very short sentences or single words, without raising your voice, as your child will have a limited ability to process words in this state.

 3.Everyday habits to reduce the frequency of meltdowns.

If you can gradually incorporate these activities into your everyday routine, they will help your child to stay regulated and be less likely to tip into ‘meltdown’ mode.  These habits take time to build up, so focus on one at a time and observe which are most effective. Don’t worry if you don’t manage them everyday. The most important thing is not to give up.

  1. Try to encourage your child to have 1 hour’s exercise per day.
  2. Give them a small snack and drink as soon as they wake up.
  3. Carry crunchy snacks and water with you if you go out.
  4. Make sure your child has 12 hugs a day. In our experience, increasing nurture decreases aggression.
  5. Ask them to help you lift and carry things around that are, for them, quite heavy. This is because all muscle work is regulating.
  6. Spend at least 10 minutes per day playing with your child, one-to-one, on whatever activity they choose and let them lead the play. Although it can be really hard to find this one-to-one time if there are other siblings, the benefit in meltdown reduction means, in our experience, that the time and effort are worth it for the whole family.
  7. Try to observe what activities or situations trigger your child into a meltdown state. It can help to keep a diary so you can notice patterns.

4. What not to do – habits to move away from to help your child or loved one.

This is not about making you as a parent or carer feel guilty or criticised.  These are just some responses which, if avoided, may help reduce the frequency and intensity of the meltdowns and improve your sanity.

  1. If your child is in a ‘code red’ or ‘code amber’ state, avoid issuing consequences or punishments. This can be really hard as you will probably be feeling very cross and provoked yourself. Disciplining your child is really important but they will only be able to engage with that discipline and learn to do things differently next time when they are in a calm state.
  2. This is a really really hard one and not always possible, but if you can, try to avoid sounding or looking cross or angry.
  3. Avoid making statements that start with the words ‘you are so….’ or ‘you are such a….’ – these are judgemental words and are likely to increase rather than decrease the problem.
  4. Try to avoid raising your voice unless absolutely necessary in order to be heard.
  5. During a meltdown use as few words as possible. If words are necessary, use single words or at most very short simple sentences. 
  6. Avoid allowing your child to consume caffeine.
  7. Limit time playing computer games which are either competitive or have a high visual input, eg lots of flashing lights and colours and sounds.  

I hope this article is a helpful short guide to getting back to a place where you feel that you are able to cope, as a family.  It probably will not be enough to completely stop the meltdowns but it is a good place to start. Please do also join us all in the sensory supers programme, which you can join whether you are a parent, grandparent, teacher or other professional. There you can discover the unique sensory thumbprint of your child or loved one, and learn much more about how to help them to thrive.


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