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Meltdowns, Part 3: Prevention is Key

Meltdowns are a common and deeply misunderstood human behavior. We’re addressing meltdowns over a series of posts, to try to lend some clarity to these events, explain what causes them, and help minimize their impact.

Like I said before, you can’t prevent something you don’t understand. Let’s look at meltdown triggers because this is where you have the most power to prevent meltdowns.

Identifying Triggers

Before you can prevent anything, you have to be able to predict when it’s going to occur. Meltdowns are the same. And we learn to predict by analyzing past events for themes and similarities. To find the themes, the question to ask is “What is triggering the downstairs brain to take over?”

When identifying triggers, it’s worth looking at the hierarchy of human needs. This is a construct developed to describe how humans prioritize meeting their own needs.

Humans must meet the needs at the bottom of the pyramid before those at the top can be met. So finding and addressing triggers at the bottom of the pyramid will have the biggest impact with the least work.

To prevent meltdowns, needs for food, water, and sleep must be met first. Also, medical issues need to be in good control. When body systems are not functioning well, meltdowns will absolutely follow. Once basic health needs are met, it’s most effective to consider whether the child feels safe.

For autistic children, in particular, sensory sensitivities and unmet sensory needs are intimately connected with meltdowns. Sensory sensitivities have the power to overwhelm children very quickly and are perceived by the nervous system as a direct threat. This can push a child into a fight-or-flight state and is the most frequent meltdown trigger that I’ve encountered. In addition, some children with unmet sensory needs will seek input however they can. Redirection by parents who have not identified the behavior as a sensory need can also trigger meltdowns.

After basic health and sensory needs are addressed, consider emotional triggers. These are things like school-based stressors (bullying, failing classes, school anxiety), home-based stressors (impending divorce, sibling conflict, parental conflict), and bigger life events (death and grief). Often these emotional triggers are exacerbated by a child’s sense that nobody cares about their feelings.

The Last Straw

Often, triggers are cumulative. We find more meltdowns in children who have big stuff going on in life, but they get through their days pretty well until a tiny thing seems to tip them over the edge. In a stressed state, the downstairs brain is working overtime all the time, and it’s like the upstairs and downstairs brains are constantly wrestling over who should be in control (this is what we mean when we say they’re dysregulated). When something small happens, it tips the balance and the downstairs brain jumps into the driver’s seat.

It’s important to remember this when looking at triggers. It may not be just one thing, but a cumulative load of things that trigger a meltdown. It’s also important to realize that some children learn to put on a mask to hide their dysregulation until they absolutely can’t anymore.

Dealing With Triggers Proactively

Proactive management methods vary depending on the trigger. Sensory needs are best addressed by avoiding sensory triggers whenever possible. Expecting a child to just constantly power through sensory overwhelm is unreasonable. Giving them the sensory support they need to thrive is not only a compassionate response, it’s a practical choice.

Allow ear defenders and sunglasses whenever your child wants them. Let them wear what’s comfortable and eat their safe foods. Be practical about bathing and hair washing. Be compassionate about what you can, so that if something must be done that is a trigger, you’re starting in a more regulated place and the downstairs brain is less likely to take over.

Emotional triggers have to be addressed when they occur. Small events, like arguments over toys, need to be addressed in that moment. The goal here is not to give in to your child. The goal is to allow them to express their feelings safely, with a sense that you will accept and validate those feelings. For big triggers, it’s important that you go to bat for your child. The knowledge that you’re on their side is incredibly powerful. And just acknowledging feelings can head off many meltdowns. But for those you can’t address at home, talk therapy and play therapy are a big help.

Coping With Triggers

The most important thing to know about coping with triggers is that this is a method of last resort. Until an exposure stops being a trigger, trying to power through that trigger is ultimately a losing battle. Eventually, the downstairs brain will gain control, and the meltdown will happen. Constantly trying to deal with triggers that rile up the downstairs brain produces stress hormones that impact health for the rest of your child's life.

The ability to cope with triggers comes with time. As a child learns to self-regulate, meltdowns will become less and less frequent. It’s never perfect, but life can get a lot better.

Next, we'll talk about what to do when prevention fails.

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