Meltdowns, Part 5: Cumulative Relationship Trauma

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.


Unfortunately, some parents are reading this many years into a long-standing pattern of meltdowns. As I’ve said before, meltdowns are traumatic. That trauma occurs to both the child and the parents, and the interaction of those trauma histories is inevitably going to make things worse, not better.


The Trauma Cycle


If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, you understand the trauma cycle. As soon as you sprained that ankle, it hurt. Because of that hurt, you probably started walking differently, or even not at all. A couple of days after limping, you probably noticed that your back was starting to hurt. And once your back started to hurt, you were walking a lot differently, and maybe that other knee started acting up. This is known as cumulative trauma. One injury leads to another, and then another because the pain we experience changes the way we behave.


Likewise, relationship trauma has a cumulative effect. In a meltdown, your child might have called you a name, injured you, or damaged an item that was important to you. That hurts, and carrying that pain around with you creates a sort of emotional scar. Because it hurts, you start to protect that little painful spot in your heart. Maybe you disengage a little. Maybe you act extra nice, hoping that your child doesn’t hit that spot again. You’re just trying to solve a problem.

But that little shift in your behavior shifts your relationship with your child. Things are out of balance. Normal has changed. And your child will respond to that. Things feel weird, and for a child already teetering on the edge of dysregulation, this can increase tension and stress. Increased stress further increases dysregulation. And then something tiny sets off a meltdown. Before you know it, you’re hurt again. And the cycle restarts.


Interlocking Cycles


The truth is infinitely more complicated than this simple cycle. Because just as you are cycling, your child is cycling. You’re hurting each other, and feel powerless to stop the process. All the while, meltdowns are increasing in frequency and severity.


Stopping the Cycle


The most important thing to realize is that you cannot stop this alone. When trauma cycles become this complex, a mental health professional needs to be involved.

It’s also critical to understand that the part where you get hurt over and over won’t stop right away. What has to change is your response to the pain. You need to learn how to heal your pain without injuring your psychological health further. As you heal, your child will also heal, but it will go faster if you both have a mental health professional to assist each of you in processing everything that has happened.


This can absolutely be overcome. It will take time and understanding, and you’ll take some steps backward. But it can get better.

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