Evidence Based Strategies for Preventing Meltdowns
If you have ever dealt with a child having a meltdown or an outburst, then you know that de-escalating the situation is no easy feat. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.
A meltdown may seem unpredictable and include aggressive or destructive behavior. It is very different from a temper tantrum because the child is not in control of themselves during the outburst. So, proactively preventing meltdowns is a more successful approach than de-escalation.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.
In order to be successful at preventing outbursts, you must be able to identify:
- Early warning signs and know how to intervene
- Environmental factors that can be manipulated
- Replacement behaviors that can be taught – which will serve the same function as the problem behavior
Anatomy of A Meltdown
The diagram below is a representation of what happens when a meltdown or outburst occurs.
When a child is calm, they follow directions, ignore distractions, accept praise and feedback. This is, of course, the ideal state.
Calm – Time For Prevention
When your child is in the calm state, you must focus on prevention. Use positive reinforcement often and give your child opportunities to be successful. Our brain is wired to accept reinforcement better than consequences.
This is the perfect opportunity to communicate positive expectations because your child is receptive. You can also use these times for teaching skills like problem-solving, and self-regulation.
This is the ideal state for your child when they are in school and also the best opportunity for teaching.
1. You can do activities that encourage relaxation and de-stressing
- Use a color changing LED light or candle and practice taking breaths in and out as the colors changes. This is a great activity for promoting mindfulness and calming techniques.Depending on your child’s interests, Amazon offers an array of color changing lamps, like this one.
- Play mindful games – I recently attended a webinar hosted by ADDitude magazine about how to improve attention, focus, and self-regulation using mindful activities. The webinar presenter recommended these mindful games activity cards.
- You may have trouble getting your child to participate in these calm and quiet activities at first. That is completely normal, but you can build up the time slowly, like stamina. So, if your child is practicing their breathing and is only able to focus for 30 seconds, that’s fine. Give them positive reinforcement for trying. Then push for 35 seconds of breathing on the next day.
- It’s important to practice these activities often when your child is calm so that when they do become upset you can prompt them to do their breathing then, too. You can’t teach this in the moment when your child is already having an outburst.
2. Proactively address sensory integration issues
- Ensure that children with autism, ADHD, or sensory processing are supported daily in sensory regulating activities. This can be done by identifying triggers, and calming activities. For example, if loud noises are a trigger, have a quiet space for your child or bring along a pair of noise-reducing headphones. You can check out my list here that offers over 35 different solutions to common sensory issues and triggers.
- Regular breaks for sensory activities are helpful in preventing outbursts. Allow your child to have a stress ball, or silly putty for tactile and proprioceptive input. Take movement breaks to do proprioceptive input activities like some of these whole body movements.
- Occupational Therapists are now commonly recommending sensory “snacks” instead of sensory “meals” – This means spending 5 minutes, once an hour, doing a full-body activity. Instead of spending 30 minutes a couple times a day doing activities. Short but frequent intervals are more effective.
3. Plan Your Schedule and Practice Your Exit Strategy
- Children with autism prefer to have a planned schedule rather than continual surprises throughout the day. Create a schedule so your child knows what to expect – this could be visuals, or a written list, depending on the individual.
- Have a pre-planned signal your child can give you to communicate that they are in a tense or stressful situation. This takes a lot of practice but once successful this can be used so you can intervene before the situation escalates.
Trigger – Be Proactive
When a trigger has occurred, your child is no longer in their calm state.
This is the point when you must recognize the trigger occurred and begin supporting non-escalating behavior. If you recognize and intervene at the trigger, there’s an 80-90% chance you can prevent the situation from escalating.
- Repeated failures or frustrations – being expected to do things they can’t do
- Low rate of positive reinforcement
- Unexpected event – sudden change from routine
- External sensory issue – lights, noise, smells, etc
- Internal issue – hunger, thirst, tired, feeling sick, in pain, etc.
- Changes in body language
- Physiological changes such as redness in face/ears
- Tensing up
- Pacing, unable to sit still
- Scratching/picking, etc.
- Change in tone of voice
You must watch for cues and recognize the trigger before their frustration overflows and escalates into a meltdown.
These cues may be subtle and require a keen eye to notice. Children have their own unique cues and you will know what your child’s cues are better than anybody else.
After a trigger, focus on intervention and redirection in order to be supportive of non-escalating behavior and prevent outbursts.
What To Do
After you’ve noticed warning cues and identified the trigger, you need to intervene. Consider some of the following interventions to support non-escalation:
1. Remove or modify the trigger
If the trigger is sensory related, modify the environment or accommodate the child. You may need to give your child a fidget to use or have a movement break.
Movement helps us get our senses back to the “just right” zone necessary for calm. A change of environment may be needed, or a redirection to a preferred activity.
2. Increase Opportunities for Success
If your child is feeling frustrated after repeated failures – give them an opportunity to be successful. Ask them to do a task you know they can do and increase the amount of positive reinforcement you are using.
The positivity can ease some of your child’s frustration and help them feel calm again.
3. Create a Break Box
Collect 15-20 small items you can keep together as part of your break box. When you start seeing cues that your child is frustrated allow them to take a short break with their break box to do a calming activity. You can include things like coloring books, fidgets, play-doh, puzzles, word searches, etc.
The break box can be tailored to your child’s interests. You can easily create your own by picking up some dollar store items, but you can also build your own custom break box online with fun and function.
4. Deal with internal problems promptly
This can take a bit of detective work because children often don’t know how to express what is happening inside their bodies, they may not even know what it is they are feeling. However, it is really important because no amount of manipulating the environment will help your child if the problem is internal.
Offer a drink or snack, or ask them if they are in pain or feeling ill. Read more about interoception here.
Agitation – Intervene Now
Once your child reaches a state of agitation, you will start seeing an increase in negative behavior. If you intervene now, you have about a 30-40% chance of preventing the situation from escalating.
During this stage, you will notice behaviors such as:
- Inability to stay on task
- Whining, complaining. back talking
- Increased stimming and body movements
- Resisting transitions
- Not listening to instructions
This is the last chance for intervention if you are preventing outbursts and supporting non-escalating behavior.
When your child is in a state of agitation their frustrations are extremely close to overflowing into a full meltdown. Their fight or flight instinct is going to take over.
1. Answer the question – why?
What purpose does the behavior have? Understanding why your child is acting a certain way is the key to changing it.
You must understand the function in order to plan a successful last chance intervention.
2. Make immediate environment modifications
Take your child out of the current environment and go somewhere for a break. A change of scenery can help when calming a child. If there is a sensory issue deal with it immediately by removing or modifying the trigger.
3. Give Child Reasonable Options/Choices
When a child is frustrated they often feel like they have lost control of a situation. Offering choices or options can help them feel as though they’ve regained a bit of control.
These choices are things such as “Do you want to walk to the dinner table or do you want to skip there?” “Do you want to wear your purple shirt today or your green shirt?”
4. Match Their Language or Stop Talking
When your child is on the verge of a meltdown, communication becomes increasingly difficult to process. Matching your child’s language can help you make sure you’re talking in a way that they can understand. So if your child talks to you in two-word phrases, respond in two-word phrases, not full sentences.
Then make sure you’re giving them time to process what you’ve said. If you start repeating yourself before you have given your child time to process what you said the first time they will become more frustrated and unable to follow your instructions.
Processing time increases as levels of stress increase. While waiting for a response, try counting to 5 in your head, before speaking again.
5. Use Positive Engagements
Look for opportunities to use positive reinforcement. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. Even if your child is acting out, search for the positive in the situation and use it.
You can also try adding humor to the situation and attempt to get your child laughing. In the past, my son has kicked his shoes off angrily while in the car. I picked his shoes up and used silly voices to make each of his shoes “talk” about how they like when he wears them. It soon had him giggling and I was able to stop the situation from escalating.
Acceleration – Escalation Will Run Its Course
Unfortunately, once your child has reached the point of acceleration, the escalation of the meltdown will most likely need to run its course.
You must understand that at this point your child has lost control of their behavior. This may include things such as:
- Destructive behavior
At this point, maintaining everyone’s safety is the most important thing.
1. Use Nonviolent crisis intervention skills
Remove anything that could be potentially dangerous to yourself or your child. Move away from the situation – give them some space while ensuring their safety.
If other people are around, have them leave/move away as well. Do not touch or attempt to move the child unless they are in a dangerous place.
Stop talking. I can’t stress this enough. At this point, your child cannot process what you are saying. There is no reasoning with them or explaining right now and they will not be receptive to anything you say.
The peak is the most severe part of the meltdown. Continue the same way as you were during the acceleration while focusing on safety.
Deceleration —- > Recovery
After the peak begins the deceleration. At this point, the behavior becomes less and less severe.
When your child reaches the state of depletion they will feel drained. During this time focus on re-establishing your child’s routine and starting anew. Do not nag, blame, punish, or force apologies. Your child is recovering at this time from an event that was extremely stressful.
After recovery, when your child has returned to their calm state, talk about what happened. This is the ideal time to give any consequences, explaining why, and talking about expected behavior. You can work on teaching those replacement behaviors and calming activities that were discussed.
Look back at where things started to go awry and plan what you can do next time to prevent them same escalation from occurring.
Successful Non-Escalation and Preventing Meltdowns
In order to be successful at supporting non-escalation behavior, you must intervene early. Prevention would be ideal, but realistically that is not always possible. Triggers can happen unexpectedly and be unpredictable.
It’s important to be ready to intervene at the earliest sign of frustration. The sooner you begin intervention the more likely you will be able to stop the behavior from escalating.
After your child has a meltdown, think about the following questions:
What did your child do, and what was the function?
What appropriate behavior could they do instead that will have the same function?
How can I help them learn that new skill and replace the behavior?
To learn even more about preventing meltdowns and supporting non-escalating behavior click here to download my comprehensive guide to preventing meltdowns.
You can get some tips about using positive reinforcement for teaching replacement behaviors here.