Perhaps a lesser-known aspect of my work is with young people. Mind Body Gut Juniors have a holistic focus and a vital part of this is their environment and emotional state management abilities. We all know how difficult meltdowns can be so here are some insights as to how to manage them...
Before the meltdown
1. Understand your child's triggers
It's important to familiarise yourself with your child's unique triggers, as these can vary from one child to another. Sometimes, the triggers may not be immediately apparent and might take hours or even days to build up to a meltdown. Triggers can range from emotional or sensory overload to unexpected changes, pain, or fear. Recognising these triggers can help you prevent meltdowns.
You might notice signs like your child becoming anxious before school, on Sunday nights, or at the end of the day. Meltdowns may also occur around mealtimes or bedtime, indicating hunger, fatigue, or over-stimulation as possible triggers. In some cases, specific environments, such as noisy or crowded places, can also play a role.
2. Identify early escalation
Being attentive to early signs of escalation can enable you to intervene before a full-blown meltdown ensues. Common warning signs include:
- Difficulty thinking clearly, making decisions, or responding to questions.
- Repeatedly asking the same thoughts or questions.
- Resistance to following directions or cooperating.
- Attempts to withdraw from sensory stimuli, such as noise and sights, or seeking refuge by running away or hiding.
- Restless movements like fidgeting or pacing.
- Complaints of physical discomfort, such as dizziness, a racing heart, or nausea.
3. Attempt distraction
During the escalation phase, it's possible to interrupt it by diverting your child's attention to a different task or activity. If your child is receptive to it, humour can be a valuable tool to break the emotional state.
4. Practice patience
While your natural instinct may be to quickly de-escalate the situation, speaking rapidly and loudly can exacerbate it by inadvertently conveying a sense of chaos. It's more effective to provide your child with space and time to process your words. Use concise, calm, and controlled language that minimises their need to make decisions.
During the meltdown
1. Ensure safety
When your child is in the midst of a meltdown, it can feel like an emergency, but it's important to assess whether anyone is at risk of harm. Remove any objects that could cause harm to your child or be used to harm others. Remember that this behaviour is unintentional.
2. Offer reassurance
It may take some trial and error to discern whether your child needs physical distance, a comforting hug, or a gentle touch during a meltdown. However, maintaining a calm tone of voice and body language is beneficial in any case. Let your child know that you're there for them and that you understand their feelings of fear and loss of control. Use empathetic phrases such as, "I can see that you are scared or angry. How can I help?"
3. Avoid responding with anger
If your child is in a hostile or angry state, known as the CRASH state (constricted, reactive, avoidant/analysis paralysis, separation, hurt/hostile), any escalation in your own reactions, such as anger or raised voices, can intensify their reaction. Strive to maintain your own emotional composure.
4. Provide space
In public settings, try to guide your child to a quieter location. At home, encourage them to move to a peaceful spot. If moving isn't possible, ask others to give both you and your child some space. Be mindful of the environment, as crowded spaces may make your child feel confined, so suggest moving to a more open area.
5. Create a calm environment
Diminish sensory stimuli by reducing lights and keeping noise levels low. Avoid crowding your child, and if you're at home, stand off to the side instead of blocking them in a doorway.
Plan for after the meltdown
Start thinking about how to reconnect with your child once the meltdown has subsided, instead of engaging in actions that might trigger another episode. This may involve abandoning plans, if necessary, or deferring emotional discussions to a more suitable time.
Ensure you approach your child's world, meeting them where they are, rather than insisting they join yours.
1. Allow time to recover
After calming down, your child may feel embarrassed or guilty and experience physical exhaustion. Give them the time and space to recover and regain their composure.
2. Choose the right moment for discussion
Help your child make sense of what happened but avoid discussing it immediately after the meltdown. When both of you are calm:
- Give your child a heads-up that you'll be talking and reassure them that they're not in trouble.
- Keep the conversation brief, focusing on the behaviour rather than the child. Make it a collaborative effort to find a solution.
- Ensure your child comprehends the discussion by asking them to recap it or clarify any doubts. If you've formulated an action plan, see if they can summarise it for you.
3. Encourage reflection
Provide your child with the opportunity to reflect on what happened without judgment and explore alternatives to prevent future meltdowns. Often, meltdowns occur due to feeling overwhelmed and trapped, so offering options can be empowering.
Understand that children do not intentionally seek chaos or distress, and they do not enjoy meltdowns. Managing meltdowns requires practice, recognising signs, and teaching coping skills to enable both you and your child to respond more effectively in the future.