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Meltdowns, Part 4: Managing the Moment

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.

No matter how fantastic you are at preventing meltdowns, they will happen sometimes. And you need to know what to do when they happen to reduce the risk of injury and prevent further psychological trauma.

Listen for the Rumble

While I described the 4 phases of the meltdown as if one always proceeds to the next, the truth is that you can short-circuit a meltdown if you catch it early. Listen for the rumble. When you recognize your child rumbling, a meltdown is coming, but it’s still likely to be preventable. So when you hear it, act. Remove the trigger as quickly as you can and validate that your child is beginning to feel overwhelmed. Let them know you’re there to help. In this phase, your child is still processing your speech, so you can still talk them down. This is the phase in which learned coping skills are most effective.

The Runaway Train

Our most dysregulated children sometimes go from phase to phase within minutes, so there are some children for whom we don’t have time to intervene before they escalate and explode. They’re a runaway train, and the most important thing is to keep everyone safe.

Remember that now, the downstairs brain is driving. Your child has lost access to the part of the brain that makes decisions, forms and stores memories, allows us to access our memories, controls emotions, produces both empathy and self-awareness, allows us to focus, and controls bodily movements. That explains why your child is impulsive, emotional, says and does hurtful things, and damages property.

In a moment of crisis, we all do things that don’t make a lot of sense because we don’t know what else to do. So most of us have tried other things – reasoning, yelling, punishing, promising rewards, isolating, or restraining a child during a meltdown. At that moment, it’s important to remind yourself that your child isn’t processing speech or forming memories as they usually do, so talking it through during the meltdown is a waste of time. Discipline isn’t going to teach your child anything, because your child can’t form new memories in the same way. Likewise, they can’t recall lessons they’ve learned in the past, like learned coping skills. The one memory function that seems to remain intact is the ability to form traumatic memories. So isolation, yelling, punishment, and restraints may make things worse, not better.

Co-regulation is a huge asset in this time. Co-regulation is a process that requires the adult to maintain their calm so that the child feeds off of that energy and can calm themselves. Co-regulation is the act of allowing their storm to meet your calm.

Credit to @kwiens62

Do whatever calms your child, even if it’s just to sit there and hold space. Remember that this is a crisis, and it’s not the time to withhold your attention and affection. Your presence will help your child regulate, and eventually that upstairs brain will wrestle the steering wheel away from the downstairs brain and this will end. If you’re unable to remain calm during this time, walk away if you can do so safely.


Afterward, everyone is going to have feelings about what has just happened. And it does need to be addressed. But, it pays to keep a couple of things in mind.

  • Your child may not remember what happened during the meltdown. Memory forming goes offline during fight-or-flight. So slogging through the details of what happened isn’t necessarily helpful. Nor is telling them that they shouldn’t have done X because it’s unsafe. They didn’t consciously choose that behavior.

  • This is not the child’s fault. This is a critical overload, and I’ve learned from experience how hard children work to prevent their own meltdowns. Assume the best of your child. Believe that they did their best, and affirm that to them.

  • Process anything they want to talk about. Respect their boundaries if they don’t want to talk about it. If they do remember the meltdown, inducing shame isn’t helpful.

  • Get some help for yourself. Meltdowns are traumatic for everyone. Sometimes the hurt and overwhelm are so big that parents begin to resent their child. You can’t be the calm to their storm if you’re feeling stormy yourself.

  • Learn and move forward. As you get more comfortable with these concepts, you’ll inevitably transition from blaming your child to blaming yourself for missing the rumbling. But learn from it and move on.

And, I recommend that you take another look at Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahooke.

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