Tantrums and Meltdowns: Part two

An article, written by Principal Clinical Psychologist Colby Pearce, which originally appeared on Colby’s blog site Attachment and Resilience.

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).