Meltdowns are a common and deeply misunderstood human behavior. We’ll address meltdowns over a series of posts, to try to lend some clarity to these events, explain what causes them, and help minimize their impact.
Meltdowns are not exclusively a neurodivergent behavior. But they are most recognized as a frequent event in the lives of autistic children. In order to understand meltdowns, we need to understand how they evolve.
*Note – Meltdowns don’t just happen in children. But as a pediatrician, this is the group with which I am most comfortable. Still, if an adult who has meltdowns finds this framework useful, I’m thrilled.
Meltdowns - They're Not Just Nuclear
The term meltdown was originally used to describe a catastrophic and dangerous exposure of radioactive material from the core of a nuclear power plant. Reactor meltdowns are explosive, life-threatening events. Likewise, children’s behavioral meltdowns are explosive events. A child’s meltdown signals the catastrophic and dangerous release of emotional energy in a child.
The Phases of a Meltdown
I think of meltdowns in phases. I call these the rumblings, the escalation, the explosion, and the wind-down.
This is the first sign of an impending meltdown. It’s a subtle change in behavior that indicates that the child is beginning to struggle. Rumblings may look like an increase in normal, typical stimming, a change in facial expression, or a different tone or volume of voice. It can also be what is often called “whiny” behavior, like nagging requests of “can we go yet, Mom?” These behaviors are an attempt to self-regulate and prevent the oncoming explosion. But children in this phase may not recognize their own growing dysregulation, so it’s imperative that the adults around them acknowledge what is happening inside them.
Meltdowns hit escalation when the child’s behavior evolves into less functional attempts to self-regulate. Stims may become bigger, louder, more vigorous. Nagging may become demanding, like “Let's Go, Mom!” During escalation, all subtlety is gone, and it is very clear to those nearby that something is happening inside this child.
When the child explodes, it’s unmistakable. Any ability to communicate with the child disappears. Movements may become exaggerated and appear to be entirely uncontrolled. Children can become violent and damage property or hurt others and themselves. Or the exact opposite may occur, and the child may shut down, curl into a ball, and shut out the rest of the world. Vocalizations can be loud or the child may be silent. If they are vocalizing, it could be shouting, yelling words, or even profanity and insults.
At some point, the meltdown burns out. Things start to cool off. Many children will sort of zone out and rest for a while, but some just seem to go about life as if nothing happened. And it’s over, for now.
Tantrum or Meltdown?
I’ve seen many descriptions and charts developed to help parents distinguish tantrums for meltdowns. And they’re all garbage.
The only reason anyone tries to distinguish a tantrum from a meltdown is to blame the child for their behavior. If you’re trying to tell whether your child is having a meltdown or a tantrum, you’re more interested in an excuse to disregard your child’s feelings than you are in helping them cope. I said what I said.
Children don’t cry and yell and damage property for fun. They don’t do it to manipulate you to get what they want. They’re doing it because they’re so overwhelmed that they’ve lost control. They are in agony. And even in this state, they are worthy of your compassion and help.
In the next part, we’ll look at why meltdowns happen and how we know that children aren’t just being manipulative.