Meltdowns are a reaction to feeling overwhelmed – for instance, when your toddler is tired, hungry, stressed, or asked to do something they can’t or don’t want to do.
Unlike tantrums, meltdowns aren’t about getting a reaction from you: they’re an involuntary emotional response to sensory overload – and your child will be looking to you to help them regain control of their feelings.
Teaching self-regulating skills can be your greatest ally when coping with meltdowns. It can be as simple as regularly chatting about feelings or modelling how you handle stressful emotions yourself.
You could also agree and practice a ‘frustration signal’ your child can use to show they’re feeling overwhelmed. This gives you both time to move to a quiet space and run through a calm-down routine (deep breaths, clapping rhythms or counting to ten). It’s worth practising these while your child is feeling calm and secure.
Get to know which situations your child finds especially overwhelming, then try to reduce or remove the ones you can control. If going to a crowded shopping centre is likely to cause a meltdown, for instance, go at a quieter time or do your shopping online.
Distraction (with toys, games or tasks) can work if your child isn’t yet overwrought. At other times you may just need to ensure they’re safe, then let them go through the process of having a meltdown.
Handling a full-blown meltdown
- Help your child find a safe space. They won’t be capable of listening, so don’t try to reason with them. Talking about what’s happened can come later, once they’ve calmed down.
- Allow your child to have the meltdown – just stay calm and close at hand. Some children may like to have a hand placed on them or have their back stroked; others may not want to be touched during a meltdown, but need to know you’re close.
- Having a meltdown can be exhausting, so wait until they’re calm before speaking gently to them and offering them some water or a healthy snack. This can be a good time to talk about self-regulating skills, too.