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Managing Meltdowns

Many parents can attest that managing their child’s meltdown is both physically and emotionally draining. You may begin to question the effectiveness of your parenting skills, become embarrassed by your child’s actions, or become emotional and reactive yourself. While these moments are undoubtedly difficult, try to remember that meltdowns, and how you respond to them, are an important part of your child’s development. Be sure to stay in control of your emotions and to be clear and consistent in your expectations and consequences. Providing your child with this clarity and consistency during their tantrums will help them learn how to: delay gratification and accept consequences, understand the importance of meeting certain expectations, and illustrate the hard lesson that life is not always fair.

But what if your child seems to spend a large part of their day melting down over what seems like nothing? What do you do when being clear and consistent just isn’t paying off? First, and most importantly, you should talk with your pediatrician. Frequent and intense tantrums might be a red flag for a bigger, underlying problem. Be sure to have some specifics about the tantrums… How many times a day is your child melting down?... Can you identify a consistent trigger for the meltdown?... Does it appear to happen during a certain time of the day?... Does it happen with certain demands?... Does your child hurt themselves or others during the tantrum? Knowing the specifics can help your pediatrician guide you in the right direction and find the right kind of help for your child and family.

At Abilities, we know that managing frequent and intense meltdowns is a highly individualized process and that a “one size fits all” approach rarely works. We also know from our experience that whether your child is typically developing or struggling to overcome a developmental delay, there are some common “Meltdown Makers” ....


Whether it's from one activity to the next, or from one place to another, transitioning can be quite difficult for children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), or Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Often times knowing what to expect next and providing your child with the right sensory tools can help combat the distress of transitioning.

  • Autism Helper has great suggestions for visual schedules starting with the most basic object schedules, to picture schedules, and text based schedules.

  • Counting down from 10 or 5 is another EASY and effective way to facilitate transitioning from one activity to the next. You can also use the timer on your smart phone for children that require longer warnings before transitions. Visual timers, like Time Timer, can be a great option for children with auditory sensitivites.

  • Singing a transitioning song can also soothe a child and ease them through the transition. A great example of this is the “Clean Up Song”. (Make sure to think ahead and have the transition be complete by the end of the song.)

  • Consider making a “Transition Tool Belt”. Break out those old 80’s Fanny Packs, or if you are crafty, modify one of your child’s regular belts….

  • Include…

  • pictures of the new place or new people your child is going to meet

  • healthy and preferred crunchy snacks (for calming oral input)

  • preferred toys or tactile fidgets (spinner fidget, squish ball etc.)

Adding a little extra weight to this belt (not any great than 10% of your child’s body weight) can also provide a little extra calming input for your child.

Accepting “No”...

A tricky feat for ALL children!

  • First, try and limit your use of this word. Instead, try to redirect your child’s attention. Sometimes just the word “No” can be a trigger and often times you can redirect your child without ever uttering the word.

  • Provide your child with 1 or 2 other options that you know they like and may be a good substitute for what they are truly desiring. For example, if your child asks for time on their I Pad because boredom has set in, you can say… “It’s not time for the I pad, but you can jump on your trampoline, or play ____ with Mom/Dad/Brother/Sister.”

  • When redirection does not work and your child refuses to accept other options, be firm in your stance. If your child begins to melt down:

  • Bring your child to a safe and quiet place

  • Verbalize how your child feels… “I see that you are mad.”

  • Try deep pressure/bear hugs (if appropriate) and dim the lights

  • If safe, remove yourself from the room for a set period of time to give them some time to “work it out”.

  • Remember to not negotiate with your child in these moments, sometimes working through the anger and frustration of being told “No” is just the right medicine.

Bath Time

Bathing is rich in sensory experiences and often the transition in and out of the bath, or transition from playing in the tub to actually bathing, is difficult. Children with sensory sensitivities may also resist face and hair washing, making bath time a nightmare.

  • Try letting your child do as much of the washing as possible. Often children with over responsive tactile systems do best with active sensory experiences (doing it themselves) versus passive (accepting it from others) sensory experiences.

  • If your child cannot bathe themselves, try using firm pressure versus light touch, and wash proximally to distally-- meaning from the shoulder down to the hand, hips down to the feet, chest down to the abdomen, etc. Avoid a scrubbing motion and rely on long, firm strokes with the grain of hair growth.

  • Try using a hair washing shield like this one, to keep splashing water and soap away from your child's face and ears.

  • Also talking your child through the experience may be very helpful… “First Mom is going to wash your arms, then your legs”.

  • Make sure your child gets a good amount of heavy work (jumping, animal walking, pushing/pulling activities) prior to bath time to ensure their system is “ready” for the sensory experience.

  • Don’t forget the above strategies to make transitioning out of the bath a little easier too!

  • Sometimes making bath time synonymous with playtime can work wonders. (has 15 great activities to make bathing fun again!

Meal Time

Another challenge for children with Sensory Processing Difficulties or ASD. While some children will require individualized and direct therapy to improve their tolerance to different textures and tastes these fun plates and utensils can make eating fun again. Click on the images below for purchasing information!

Grocery Stores...

Tricky for typically developing children, or children with SPD, ASD, ODD, or IED.

  • Remember those transitional strategies and take into account sensory sensitivities. Maybe the noises of the grocery store are uncomfortable for you child… consider noise canceling headphones. Maybe the feeling of being pushed in a cart is uncomfortable… consider letting your child walk next to you.

  • Avoid high traffic store times, go early in the morning or much later in the evening.

  • Engage your child in the trip, have them lift groceries off the shelf when possible and plan a store scavenger hunt.

We hope these strategies can help you manage the inevitable meltdowns of childhood! Remember, if your child seems to be spending a large portion of their day melting down consult with your pediatrician! Otherwise, stay clear and consistent in your expectations and consequences!

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