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Understanding Why Your Child Has Meltdowns and Tips on How Best to Manage Them

Whether your child experiences ‘meltdowns’ occasionally, or on a regular basis, there is no denying the toll they can take on your stress levels, and even your mental health. Often, after supporting a child’s meltdown, parents and caregivers are left feeling frustrated, embarrassed, confused, exhausted and maybe even angry. However, once you understand what is going on internally for your child when they ‘lose control’, you’re a step closer to knowing how to support them in a calm and effective manner.

Your Child’s Brain During a Meltdown

When parents understand that when their child is having a meltdown, they have ‘flipped their lid’ as Dan Siegel has so eloquently termed, it’s easier to view the meltdown as something that is happening to the child, rather than something they are purposely subjecting their parent to.

See here for what ‘flipping your lid’ actually is.

It is important to remember that a meltdown, whether mild or severe, is a signal that the child is struggling with an emotion that they can’t regulate on their own. Anger is the number one emotion that causes children to erupt into a meltdown, but anxiety can also be a big trigger. This can put their brain into fight, flight or freeze mode, which overrides any logic that would enable them to see that their fear is out of proportion to the situation.

During a meltdown your child will likely experience an elevated heart rate and become flooded with stress hormones that can also cause headaches and stomach aches, so unpleasant feelings can be felt in their physical body as well as their brain.

What is Co-Regulation

It’s during a meltdown, that the importance of co-regulation between a child and their parent or caregiver comes into play. So, what does co-regulation mean?

The supportive process between caring adults and children, youth or young adults that fosters self-regulation development is called ‘co-regulation.’1 Whilst this term was initially used to describe how parents or caregivers create warm, supportive environments to calm and nurture infants who were unable to self-regulate, it’s now used more widely to describe the interactive process of providing regulatory support to a child or loved one throughout their life.

There are 3 main categories of support parents or caregivers can provide, that help children to develop foundational self-regulation skills.

Provide a warm, responsive relationship

· Display care and affection

· Recognise and respond to cues that signal needs and wants

· Provide caring support during times of stress

· Provide unconditional positive regard

· Communicate through words and actions their interest in the young person’s world

· Show respect for the child or youth as an individual

  • Structure the environment to make self-regulation manageable

· Create an environment that is mentally and physically safe

· Provide consistent, predictable routines and expectations

· Promote a sense of security by providing clear goals for behaviour regulation

· Enforcing logical and fair consequences for negative behaviour

Teach and coach self-regulation skills

Children aren’t born with self-regulation skills. They must be learned from parents, teachers, coaches and other mentors in their life.

· Model good self-regulation skills

· Instruct them on how to practice these skills

· Provide plenty of opportunities to practice these skills

· Offer positive reinforcement when they practice self-regulation skills successfully

Why Some Children Find It More Difficult Than Others to Self-Regulate

It is important to note that sometimes a child’s difficulty with, or inability to regulate their emotions, is the result of an underlying issue. Some of the common causes of frequent meltdowns that the Child Mind Institute2 identifies are

· ADHD

· Anxiety

· Autism

· Depression and Irritability

· Learning Problems

· Sensory Processing Issues

Children and teens that experience frequent meltdowns often struggle because they are lacking one or more of the following skills, which makes it difficult for them to self-regulate during certain situations;

· Ability to self-soothing

· Impulse control

· Problem solving skills

· Negotiation skills

· Ability to communicating wishes and needs to adults

· Ability to delay gratification

· Knowing what is appropriate or expected in a given situation

How to Successfully Co-Regulate

In order for a parent or caregiver to successfully ‘co-regulate,’ they must focus on their own capacity for ‘self-regulation.’ When a child sees an adult respond to a situation in an anxious way, they may learn to be anxious. If they see their parent orcaregiver act with frustration, or anger it is very difficult for them to learn to self-regulate and calm themselves. It’s testament to the fact that children are always watching and learning, and our actions often speak louder than our words. When you respond calmly to your child, you are not only modelling self-regulation skills for them, you actively, by the process of co-regulation, help your child to gain control of their escalating feelings.

In contrast, most of us will have experienced that when a child has lost control, is hysterical, irrational, yelling and resistant, getting angry and/or frustrated with them is like throwing fuel on a fire! It only makes things worse. So, forget about what on-lookers might be thinking or saying, your only job is to model self-regulation, and bring a sense of calm and safety for your child, so that they can benefit from the process of co-regulation. Sounds simple in theory, but it’s not uncommon for parents to experience extreme stress and anxiety themselves when their child is in the throw of another meltdown. For this reason, as parents, we can also benefit from practicing self-regulation skills and regular self-care.

It may be helpful to think of co-regulation, as similar to being on a plane and having to fit your own oxygen mask before you can fit your child’s. Or another popular analogy is the idea of each person having a metaphorical bucket. When your child’s bucket begins to empty, you can help to fill it up from your own. But just remember, you can’t give from an empty bucket, so taking care of yourself so you can continue to give to your child is very important!

Tips for Managing a Meltdown in the Moment In her essay ‘7 Parenting Tips for Managing the Meltdown of Easily Distressed Children3,’ Laura Kaster, P.H.D, shares some helpful guidelines for managing in the moment. We’ve condensed it into the main points below, but highly recommend reading the full article.

1. Validate your child’s feelings. Remember that showing your child empathy when they are struggling with difficult emotions is not the same as giving in to their demands, or agreeing with their take on a particular situation.

2. Stay patient and understanding about what your child is experiencing.

3. Listen and repeat. Letting your child know that you are listening and hearing them can be very powerful. Don’t argue, just speak quietly and calmly.

4. Remember that anxiety is like gravity – what goes up, must come down. This too shall pass.

5. Responding in a calm, reassuring way when your child is feeling out of control, is NOT spoiling them.

6. Remember the only person you can control is you. If you are distressed, anxious or frustrated about your child’s outburst, model and practice your own self-regulation skills such as doing breathing exercises.

7. Consider distractions


[i] ‘Co-Regulation From Birth Through Young Adulthood: A Practice Brief’, Center for Family and Child Policy, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf

[ii] Caroline Miller, ‘Why Do Kids Have Tantrums and Meltdowns?’ Child Mind Institute, https://childmind.org/article/why-do-kids-have-tantrums-and-meltdowns/

[iii] Laura Lastner P.H.D, ‘7 Parenting Tips for Managing the Meltdowns of Easily Distressed Children,’ Parent Map https://www.parentmap.com/article/laura-kastner-tantrum-anxiety-tips

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