Princess Ky Background - The cutest blog on the block

Friday, August 5, 2011

Common Triggers of Childhood Meltdowns and Strategies for Coping

Princess Kylie: On the verge of a meltdown.

The phrase "sensory issue" is most often connected with those who experience special needs.  However, in my humble opinion, I believe that EVERYONE experiences sensory issues in some form or another. 

For some, the sensory issue is so mild that it would be classified as an irritant or more commonly referred to as a "pet peeve."  For others, they are so severe and so disruptive to their quality of life, that the sensory issue is labeled as a "disorder." 

Wherever you or your loved one land on the sensory spectrum, the fact remains that senses affect everyone.

What am I referring to when I say "sensory issue"...? Sensory issues encompass any trigger that over stimulates or under stimulates an individual's senses.

Rather than give you an education about the senses and sensory issues (which would be an entire article in itself), I'd love to refer you to one of the best and easiest reads on the subject: The Out of Sync Child Has Fun by Carol Kranowitz.  This book highlights each sense and then gives you strategies, games, toys, recipes and other ideas for helping anyone whose sensory issues are causing disruption to their life.

This article will focus on meltdowns because I believe that meltdowns and sensory issues travel hand in hand.  I do not claim to be a medical professional (and, believe me, I'm NOT- my medical experience is limited to the game Operation), but I was once a Director of a Childcare center and an Early Childhood Teacher, I majored in Elementary Education for a time and I am a mom of a precious little girl who experiences special needs (specifically Autism).  I also am an expert people watcher, observer of human conduct and my husband says I have an amazing "6th sense" (also known as women's intuition - and, unfortunately for my sweet hubby, I have a track record of being right).

In my experience, the following are common triggers of meltdowns and strategies that help bring peace and calm back into your or your loved one's life. 

I also want to stress that when your loved one is having this type of a meltdown, they are not being difficult or naughty.  They are merely having a physical or emotional reaction to the sensory stimuli that their unique body cannot handle.  They are not trying to make life more difficult for you.  They don't WANT to be alienated from their family or social group. They are not being devious or manipulative.  This is a VERY REAL and legitimate concern for those who experience it as well as for those who care about and for them.

This is why it is so important to know and be able to recognize the triggers so that you can identify and help reduce the stress and discomfort associated with the situation.

This article will be ideal to share with Grandparents, Extended Family Members, Friends, MOPS Groups, Teachers, Nursery Workers, Respite Providers and any other person on your loved one’s care team.

If a meltdown occurs...
  • Evaluate the Physical Environment: The easiest way to remember this is to think through your senses:
    • Eyes: Dim the lights (if it is daytime, turn them off altogether and use lighting from windows). 
      • Strategy: Allow your child to use a flashlight vs. overhead lights. Allow your child to wear sunglasses indoors.
    • Ears: Lower the volume of TV or radio. If you must talk, talk in your quiet "library voice." 
      • Strategy: Invest in noise cancelling ear phones.  Teach your child how to cover their ears and give them permission to do so (don't scold them for being rude)
    • Nose/Olfactory: Is there something cooking that has an odor? Does the refrigerator have some tenants that need to be evicted? Has there been air freshener sprayed? Is someone wearing a strong perfume? Does the cat box need to be cleaned? Have you changed cleaning products or laundry softener scents?
      • Strategy: Allow your child to remove themselves from the environment that they cannot handle (Even if it is the dinner table). 
    • Mouth: Is the texture of food, toothpaste or medicines too difficult for your child to handle? Does your child have issues with Reflux (spitting up, clearing their throat, etc)?
      • Strategy: Determine in advance and, with your child, agree on food choices that they feel are "safe." Keep in mind that if your child has a severe feeding issue, formula and multi vitamins are always an option.  If your child has reflux, try using infant gas drops (look for the ingredient "simethicone") - this product is sold over the counter.  It also helps to know what foods trigger reflux.
    • Touch: Is your child sensitive to the tags on their shirts; are the seams in socks bothersome? Does your child tell you that jeans/denim hurt them? Does your child break out in rashes often? Could your child's clothing/shoes be too snug?
      • Strategy: Purchase tag less t-shirts and seamless socks, allow your child to wear softer fabrics than denim (many children prefer sweat pant type material), if your child breaks out often, you might consider and talk to your doctor about allergies, skin sensitivities and the possibility of administering Benadryl, an allergy medicine that is sold over the counter. 

  • Evaluate the Emotional Environment: It could be that your child is responding to the emotional temperature in your home. 
    • Have you or other adults been talking in raised voices or hollering to each other from different floors (you may not even be angry, just loud)
    • Has someone been upset or crying?
    • Has someone been emotionally unregulated?
    • Are other children being loud or noisy?
    • Have voices on the Television/Radio been yelling or talking sternly/seriously?
    • Is your child sensitive to a certain gender's voice? (my daughter was terrified of deep male voices coming from our TV) 
      • Strategy: Turn your TV/Radio down or off.  Speak in quiet and calming voices. Allow your child to have a safe place where they can go when other children become too noisy or active for their comfort level.  If your child will allow it, hug them close and assure them that you are present for them.  Secure a blanket around them (Our daughter loves to sit in the corner of our couch with a blanket tucked tightly around her).  Many children enjoy being squeezed. Ensure your child's comfort item is accessible. Allow your child to use headphones. Keep in mind, that body language and tone of voice are both equally important in maintaining an emotionally healthy home.

  • Evaluate the External Environment: There might be something outside of your home that is causing your child significant anxiety
    • Do you live near an airport?
    • Do you live near a military base?
    • Do you live near railroad tracks?
    • Do you live near a police or fire station?
    • Are there dogs barking quite often in your neighborhood?
    • Does someone play music loudly outside your home?
    • Is there a tornado siren station near your home?
      • Strategy: Setting your child's expectations is key to your child being able to cope with these types of public services that can catch your child off guard.  Show your child a picture of what the item is.  Tell your child what or why the thing is important. Chart the expected time that your child might hear the sound. Give your child coping strategies and permission to use them (It's ok, if you want to cover your ears or put your headphones on).  Role play with toys (example: a fire truck siren goes off, because the fireman wants to keep us safe and take care of our house).  Assure your child they are safe (dogs are behind fences, policemen will take care of them, trains are just passing through, airplanes are taking people to vacation) 

  • Evaluate your child: Take a look at your child.
    • Eliminate the possibility that they are hurt (skinned knee, etc)
    • Eliminate the possibility that they are hungry or thirsty (just had a snack, etc)
    • Are they trying to communicate something to you?
    • Take notice of their toys.  What kind of play were they involved in? Does it tell you anything?
    • Have they recently read a book or watched a TV show or news that may have frightened them and they are continually replaying it over in their mind?
    • Does your child have any phobias? (such as fear of bugs, etc)
      • Strategy:  Be aware of your child and their surroundings.  Meet their physical needs to eliminate those from the checklist of things that could be causing discomfort.
  • Evaluate your schedule:
    • Do you possibly have too many activities scheduled?
    • Does your child get enough time with you?
    • Is there enough time between activities to ensure you are not rushing your child?
    • Does your child WANT to be involved in external activities?
    • Are the activities a good fit for your child's talents and gifts?
    • Are other children at the activities supportive of your child?
    • Is the activity an emotional "safe place" for your child?
      • Strategy: Many children have difficulty with transition. They have difficulty processing the unknown.  It is very important that you allow enough time for things to be as unrushed as possible.  You will need to let your child know what to expect and give them many reminders that you will be leaving soon, time to get shoes on and etc.  If your child needs a transitional / comfort item, allow it and do not belittle them for having one. 

  • Evaluate the temperature:
    • Is your child dressed appropriately for the season/weather?
    • Is your home too cool or too warm?
      • Strategy: Always take a sweater or jacket with you. Dress your child in layers and always have spare clothing available. Allow your child to remove their shoes and socks in your vehicle while traveling (even short distances).  Always keep a blanket in your vehicle (many times this is a comfort item regardless of season)

  • Other Strategies that Tend to Work for numerous scenarios and situations:
    • Deep Joint Pressure: Many children crave or need deep joint pressure.  After experiencing this kind of stimulation, they are able to focus, concentrate and cope much better.  A great way to obtain joint pressure is by jumping (a mini tramp with handle works great), chewing on a chewy tube, trapeze swinging, climbing and "heavy work" (pushing a wagon or pulling a wagon of heavy toys or books, helping to carry in groceries, etc).
    • For children who crave sensory textures: Sand play, Play Dough, water play, popcorn box (Rubbermaid box full of popcorn kernels to scoop and pour), Moon Sand play, Bubber Play, Bath foam, Shaving Gel, Orbeez, Theraputty and etc.
    • Chomping and Sucking: My daughter usually calms quickly if she can suck on a lollipop or chew on ice. 
    • Squeezing or Sandwiching: My daughter loves to be squeezed between cushions or pillows.  We also do a family hug that she calls "Hug Hide" (because you can't see her when my husband and I hug with her between us).  She also loves when we sit really close on the couch and she is in between (being squeezed).
    • Regulate Temperature: We love Cherry Pit Packs as they can be cooled or heated (you can even select the fabric). My daughter will often hold one or sleep with one.

When your child starts to "lose it" in, what I call, a "Grand Mal" Meltdown, it is very difficult to step back and try to analyze what the triggers could be.  But if you do, you will start to realize patterns in their behavior and what led up to the meltdown.  You will also learn techniques and ways to anticipate the meltdown so that you can hopefully avoid many of them in the future.

When your child DOES have the occasional meltdown, remember the following:
  • Safety should be the utmost priority.  If your child is thrashing, move your child to the center of the room away from furniture or toys that can hurt.
  • Ensure safety of other children or adults.
  • Assure your child that it is ok to be angry or upset, but it is NOT ok to lash out at others (We need to be kind to our friends). (I often empathize with my daughter and tell her that I am so sorry that she is sad/hurting/upset - I really think she knows that I am genuine and instead of viewing me as an enemy, she sees that I care about her).
  • Remain calm yourself.  Speak quietly or don't speak at all. Sometimes, just stepping outside the room helps to calm things very quickly. (stay close so you can monitor safety though)
  • Turn down lights, Turn off sounds, and dig into your treasure chest of experience to offer chewy tubes, sensory items or ice for calming.
  • Try not to worry about what others are thinking, but if you need to, simply tell them that your child is having a hard time and that you apologize if you are disturbing them. Most people will be understanding and for those who are not, maybe they will read this article and realize that there is more to good parenting than meets the eye. Some of our jobs are a tad bit more difficult than others.
  • When this occurs in our home, sometimes, I will stop what I am doing and pray aloud for my daughter. I want to reinforce that we have a Heavenly Father who loves us, who cares and who will help if we but ask.
When it is all over, make sure your child knows you are not angry, but that you want to help them through this very difficult time.  Embrace your child (if they will allow it) and assure them of your unconditional love and your willingness to walk through this challenge with them.

Here's hoping and praying that your family will continue to grow closer and stronger as you experience this exciting (and sometimes eventful) journey together.

I am never above learning… I’d love to hear any strategies or tools that you use in your home, classroom, or other environments to assist a child who struggles with meltdowns.

What works for you?


  1. Wonderful tips. I know when my daughter was a baby too much noise would tend to bother her. Our first Thanksgiving, with everyone at our house, was horrible. I need to remember that chewing can calm her down - never thought of it until I read this, but she IS a chewer, and here I've been scolding her about it...

    Thanks for sharing on BF!

  2. What a wonderful blog..and your little girl is precious! Thanks for drop by my blog - Regarding your question about the 'oily bangle' - just slightly place one end close to the heat source...let it expand and soften (not direct burning!)the end will be soften and expandable to cover into the other end. Or you can try another option at my friends version in Have a nice day!

  3. Beautifully written article! You are without a doubt a wonderful mother.