Teach Kids About Meltdowns

Everyone should have the chance to be active participants in the understanding and management of their own bodies

Boy peeks out from mountain of couch cushions

“You are an angry person”.

I lived with this self-image for most of my life, since I first heard those words in third grade. An angry person. The Hulk, capable of explosion at any moment. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I came to understand that it was completely wrong. That my stress-induced outbursts or language shutdowns weren’t aggression at all, but the involuntary response to overload known as a meltdown.

Recap: What’s a meltdown?

Meltdowns happen in situations where it’s hard to cope and there’s no way to escape or relieve the tension. The body is overwhelmed by cognitive, sensory or emotional demands that exceed the capacity to process them, and triggers a panic-like reaction in which the brain starts to shut down. Language and executive functions like memory, decision making and problem solving become compromised, making it difficult to find a way out of the situation.

Sensory overload, confusion, frustration and pain are all things that can trigger this kind of physiological reaction. If the balance between demands and coping isn’t restored, the meltdown progresses toward an external outburst or internal shutdown.

These episodes of intense stress, panic and explosion can be really traumatic and painful to go through, but it’s not just experiencing the meltdowns which can have serious long-term impacts on mental and physical well-being. It’s what you’re taught about them.

The cost of not understanding your body

For most of my life I didn’t understand the way my own body worked. I didn’t know that I was more sensitive to sound than other people, or that others found eye contact to be a comfortable and rewarding thing to do. I assumed we were all operating with the same kind of hardware, so the fact that I couldn’t tolerate things that others seemed to be able to must surely have been a character flaw on my part.

I’d learned to interpret my own behaviour in the only context that was given to me:

  • If you yell, you’re angry
  • If you avoid eye contact, you’re rude
  • If you sit in the corner at a party, you’re impolite
  • If you don’t answer your teacher, you’re naughty
  • If you don’t want to join in, you’re stubborn/selfish/lazy/boring

Not wanting to be thought of as any of these things I constantly put myself in situations which were overwhelming for me, and kept myself there long past the point of overload. Looking back now, meltdowns were inevitable.

Without knowledge of my own limits, I wasn’t able to recognize when I was reaching overload or find the exit strategies that would’ve prevented the meltdowns. I wasn’t able to plan ways to cope or reduce their intensity. Without an explanation for my reactions or the words to explain them to others, I accepted the only reasons given to me – that I was angry, intolerant, rude or stubborn.

This fallout – the confusion, helplessness and negative self-image – is a big part of the long-term cost of meltdowns. And it’s one that’s completely preventable.

The importance of teaching kids about meltdowns

Kids who are prone to meltdowns are well aware that they happen, and what those around them think about them when they do. What they’re less likely to understand is exactly what’s happening in their body, and why. And in the absence of that information they will form their own explanations. Don’t let them go thirty years before they get the right one.

Teach kids about the way their body works

For kids who experience meltdowns, help them to understand the reason they happen and how to recognize the signs that one might be coming:

  • What kinds of things do our brains have to do?
  • How does it deal with all those demands?
  • What kinds of things can make it harder for our bodies to cope?
  • What is a meltdown – what does it look and feel like?
  • How can you tell if you’re having one?
  • What can you do to make it better?

Learn the signs of overload and what might cause it

  • What kinds of things feel demanding for them?
  • What might be draining their coping reserves?
  • What can you do to ease their frustration and modulate sensory input throughout the day?
  • Are they getting enough sleep, food and exercise?
  • Are there underlying health issues that might be causing pain or discomfort?

Figure out how to prevent a meltdown escalating

  • What are some escape routes that they can use to get themselves out of a stressful situation before it becomes overwhelming?
  • Do they have a way of letting you know when things are becoming unbearable?
  • Are they able to remove themselves from these situations?
  • Do they have somewhere safe and quiet that they can go?
  • Do they know how to recognize and relieve their own tension?
  • Do they know any self-calming techniques?

Plan meltdown coping strategies

  • Who can they go to for help?
  • What would they say?
  • What about if they’re having trouble talking?

Involve the whole family

It’s also important for everyone in the family to understand that meltdowns are not misbehaviour or purposeful acts of anger, so that nobody needs to feel guilty about having them or resentful towards those that do. Teaching kids about what happens during a meltdown, and how to help themselves or someone else who’s having one, will help turn any nervousness or confusion into action and support.

The bottom line

Teaching kids about meltdowns gives them a chance to be active participants in the understanding and management of their own bodies:

  • Learning to recognize when they’ve reached their coping threshold allows them to take action before a meltdown escalates
  • Giving them words to describe their experiences can help them to feel understood
  • Showing them how to get the help they need can give them some control over situations that might otherwise be overwhelming

But most of all, these kids deserve to understand that meltdowns are not a character flaw.

Last updated 22 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.