Taming Tantrums; Managing Meltdowns: Part Two

In Part One of this series, I refer to the fact that the management of severe tantrums and meltdowns in children is an arousal management issue, rather than a behaviour management issue. In this second part of the series, I will provide some tips about how to lower your child’s arousal levels as strategy for reducing the likelihood and frequency of severe tantrums and meltdowns. I will also provide some tips about what to do to lower your child’s arousal in the midst of a severe tantrum or meltdown.

As I mentioned in Part One, severe tantrums and meltdowns occur when a child’s nervous system is highly activated; that is, highly aroused. The more highly aroused the child’s nervous system is, the less reasonable they become. There is a threshold, beyond which children are incapable of thinking and acting in a reasonable manner. As a result of genetic, historical (i.e. early exposure to stress) and contemporary (i.e. current sources of stress) factors, some children’s arousal is always higher than others, making them more prone to severe tantrum’s and meltdowns. In common language, they are highly strung. These are probably the most common children seen in a psychology practice. They would be less prone to severe tantrums and meltdown, as well as happier and better behaved children, if we could make them less highly strung; that is, if their arousal generally fluctuated in a lower range and further away from the threshold where a severe tantrum or meltdown occurs.

In my practice, and with my own children, I have found that one of the simplest and most effective methods for reducing children’s arousal levels generally is to play soothing classical music quietly in their bedrooms all night, every night. The rationale for this comes from research into the so-called Mozart Effect. This research attributes to music a powerful role in promoting a state of calm readiness, whereupon we are more likely to perform at our best and less likely to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of the day. In simpler terms, playing soothing classical music quietly in the child’s bedroom all night every night ensures that when they wake up they are not highly strung and, also, that it will take a lot more frustrations and other stressors than usual to unsettle them and precipitate a severe tantrum or meltdown.

Some children have difficulty processing and managing inputs through one or more of their senses. These children are usually identified by behaviour reported during a parental interview or the parent’s responses to formal questionnaires. Sensory processing difficulties might be seen as being a bit like having poorly fitting shoes. We’re not always consciously aware of the shoe rubbing, but at the end of the day we have a blister. Sensory processing difficulties are an irritant to your child’s nervous system, ensuring that their nervous system is more highly aroused that it would otherwise be. In turn, children with sensory processing difficulties can be more prone to severe tantrums and meltdowns. I typically refer such children to the Occupational Therapist in my practice who specialises in providing parents and children with sensory activities they can readily do to reduce the level of irritation to their nervous system, thereby reducing their arousal levels generally and their proneness to severe tantrums and meltdowns.

Other general strategies for maintaining lower levels of arousal generally include maintaining consistent routines and expectations of your child’s behaviour from day to day, and being accessible and empathic towards your child; particularly when they are in distress. For more information on these and other strategies for managing day-to-day arousal levels, I would refer the reader to my various publications on this blog site and my website, and also to my book A Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in Children.

But what do I do when my child is having a severe tantrum or meltdown I hear you ask? Firstly, as far as humanly possible (it is difficult) try to stay calm (or, at least present a calm demeanour). If you are ranting and raving, this will only further increase the child’s arousal and exacerbate their meltdown. It is also poor modelling of emotional control. If you are unable to maintain a calm demeanour, move away from your child. This is not ideal but the ‘lesser of two evils’, so to speak. If you can maintain a calm demeanour, be present and accessible to the child without further stimulating their arousal. Sit quietly in the same room with them. Drape a heavy blanket across their shoulders as weight is soothing to many children. Put on their favourite DVD, as this is associated with happy feelings. Play soothing music. Offer them a bath or a shower. If you do not add to their arousal levels the episode should be over with in less than fifteen minutes. If your child’s severe tantrums and meltdowns persist for longer than this, or they are having them once a week or more, you should seek advice from your general medical practitioner or an appropriately qualified and experienced child development or mental health professional.

Finally, as I mentioned in Part One of this series, there is no known universally effective strategy for managing (that is, eliminating) severe tantrums and meltdowns. Nevertheless, it is my experience that if we better manage children’s arousal levels generally and during a severe tantrum or meltdown, we can, at least, reduce their frequency, intensity and duration.

(Dislaimer: While it is anticipated that this article will prove to be informative for those who care for children, it is not a substitute for a full assessment and face-to-face support and guidance from an appropriately trained and experienced child development and mental health clinician. If your child is exhibiting severe and recurrent tantrums and meltdowns you should seek further advice about treatment options from your family medical practitioner).

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About colbypearce

I am a Clinical Psychologist and author who assists children and familes overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships.
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8 Responses to Taming Tantrums; Managing Meltdowns: Part Two

  1. Pingback: A tale of four children and their trip to the adventure playground: A resilience story | Attachment and Resilience

  2. colbypearce says:

    Reblogged this on Attachment and Resilience and commented:

    Ditto the previous post!

  3. Thank you for a very useful well written article. What worked for my sister in preventing her children from having melt-downs was to establish a routine from birth, stick to the routine every single day no matter what and she organised her life outside the home around the children. My sister works full time (the breadwinner in the house), the only person able to drive a vehicle – so no help from hubby there. Hubby does not do much in terms of housework, she does all the cooking (no domestic help) and the children are 3 years apart. On days of social/family gatherings, my sister would make sure the children still got into bed at home at exactly the same time – she never went shopping with them unless they had their full afternoon nap and a meal or snack so there was never any melt downs in public. Today the are 5 and 8 respectively and can be taken anywhere without any melt down happening.

    Yes, with a little work on the part of the parent, it is possible to raise children without having melt downs.

  4. Shelley says:

    Great information here! Both of my boys ask me to not speak and leave them when they are having a tantrum. They are nearly 2 and just turned 3 years-old. What’s your take on this If they’re in a safe space?

    • colbypearce says:

      Hi Shelley. Thanks for your interest and comment. My take is that if the child is in a safe place, and you are accessible without being intrusive, then it is fine to separate temporarily; but I would urge you to stay close by and initiate re-engagement as soon as they quieten. All the best 🙂

  5. Keely Brand says:

    We have a developmentally delayed child. Can I ask what your advice would be for a mostly non verbal toddler(age 2) that has more than 20 meltdowns a day, but are “shorter” than average(I can mostly get him out of it in about 5 minutes or less) but it happens sometimes more than twice an hour, so very frequent. We have been referred to an Autism clinic for testing, but otherwise; we are at a loss. Please help!

    • colbypearce says:

      Hello Keely. Sorry for the delay in responding. I would recommend that you try to develop an understanding what is precipitating the meltdown. For example, is it that your child feels unable to secure an accurate parental response to his needs and wishes. If it were this, I would recommend that you concentrate on verbalising his needs and wishes for him in a routine and proactive manner, as if you were him communicating with you. If Autism is suspected, you will probably need to maintain a highly structured and orderly home environment and daily routines. You might also deliberately and proactively expose your child to soothing stimuli, such as soothing tactile objects (e.g. a blanket) and chew toys. Consulting an Occupational Therapist who specialises in treating children’s sensory processing difficulties might also be beneficial. Good luck!

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