Managing a Meltdown

Written by Kristin Tallackson, M.A., LPC (OH), LPC Intern (TX)

Last week, you read about how to tame a tantrum. This week, I want to provide you with further information on how to identify and help your child cope with a meltdown. Remember, tantrums often are a result of a trigger that a child can recognize. A meltdown is usually a result of overstimulation. For example, a child may have a tantrum if they do not get a toy at the store. A child may have a meltdown if they are surrounded by too many people in their classroom.


In short, meltdowns are more severe than tantrums and coping with them is more complicated. As a caregiver, it is important to know the triggers and signs of escalation for your child. This may help avoid an explosive meltdown. You may not be able to stop a meltdown completely, but there are ways to respond that may help your child regain control. The following are ways, provided by, to help you to understand what to do during a meltdown.


Before the Meltdown

Know your child’s triggers. Common triggers include sensory or emotional overload, too many demands, difficulty with transition, and may include fear or pain.


Watch for patterns. This can help you recognize your child’s triggers. You may notice your child often has melt downs when they are in crowds or around noises. There may be a certain time of day you notice meltdowns such as school drop-offs or mealtimes.


Recognize the signs of escalation. Children usually show warning signs that they are having trouble coping with their environment. Catching them early may help you calm them down before they become out of control. Some common warning signs include repeating thoughts or questions, refusing to follow directions or cooperate, trying to shut out sensory input or attempting to run away or hide, and fidgeting.


Try to redirect. Sometimes, the escalation phase can be diverted. You may be able to redirect your child by interrupting the escalation and diverting their attention.


BE PATIENT. Besides empathy, this is the most important thing you can do to help your child. I often hear how hard it is to stay calm during this, but it is SO important. Children often meet your level of emotion. If they see you unable to deal with their emotions, they will not be able to deal with their emotions. Model calm behavior.


During the Meltdown

Be reassuring. It may take trial and error to know if your child prefers physical distance or a firm hug or touch during meltdown. But keeping your voice and body language calm is helpful in either case. Make sure your child knows you’re there and you understand she may feel scared and out of control.

Provide some space. If you’re out in public, try to help your child move to a quieter place. If you’re at home, see if you can get your child to go to the part of your home that is her calming zone. If it’s not possible to move your child, ask other people to give you both some space.

Tone it down. Turn down lights, keep things quiet and try not to crowd your child. If you’re at home and your child isn’t able or willing to move to her room, try standing off to the side. (Standing in the doorway can make your child feel blocked in.)

Consider your post-meltdown plan. Start thinking about how to reengage with your child after the meltdown without reigniting it. You may need to abandon your shopping trip. If the meltdown was triggered by an emotional conversation, you may need to back away from that topic and find a new way to approach it the next time you try to talk about it.

After the Meltdown

Take time to recover. Once your child starts to calm down, she may feel embarrassed or guilty about her outburst. She may also be physically exhausted. Give her time to collect herself.

Find the right time to talk. You may want to help your child make sense of what happened. Right afterward may not be the best time. But when you’re both calm, here are some ways to approach it:

·       Give your child a heads-up. Let your child know you’re going to talk so she has some advance notice. Reassure her she’s not in trouble.

·       Be brief. Talking about a meltdown can make kids feel remorseful and defensive. Say what you need to say, but try to avoid going over the same information repeatedly.

·       Check for understanding. Ask your child to tell you in her own words what you talked about. Answer any questions she may have. If you’ve decided on an action plan, see if she can summarize it for you.

Kristin Tallackson is a counselor at Heights Family Counseling who specializes in anxiety, behavior, mood, attachment, and child/teen counseling. Kristin's counseling approach is to offer a safe place for you to process and work through a multitude of circumstances, while offering valuable insight and perspective into whatever journey you may find yourself. Her philosophy is to embrace you where you are, equip you with tools, coping mechanisms and knowledge, and empower you to take those tools and lead a fulfilling life. Read more about Kristin’s counseling approach at Set up an appointment with Kristin online by going to