Ten Tips for Managing Meltdowns

Written by Dr. Carosso

It’s not uncommon that kids may become overly emotional, even tantrummatic at times. Parents typically ignore such behavior and send the child to their room to calm, which can be an effective and appropriate strategy.

To isolate or not to isolate?
For kids who show more severe emotion, banishing to the room may not be entirely effective. In some cases the child, in their room, may become destructive or self-injurious. Moreover, sometimes these kiddos refuse to go to their room, leaving parents in a quandary.  

What to do?
Here is a ten-tip prescription for success:

Remain Calm
Do not lose your cool, raise your voice, or become overly emotional, it only worsens the situation. Two out-of- control people certainly doesn’t help. Rely on the softer and closer approach espoused and explained by me in a prior post (see ‘the softer and closer approach’).  

Pick your Battles Carefully
Some battles simply aren’t worth it. You may have to decide whether your child picking-up their toys is worth a three hour battle that may ensue.

Accessing Antecedents
It’s often possible to predict emotionally volatile situations before they occur. If the problem can be predicted, it can often be avoided. For example, if your child tends to tantrum soon after returning home from school in response to contact with a sibling; you may keep the two apart for 30 minutes after the return from school, and provide a structured routine of after-school activities to slowly bring them back together on your terms, not theirs.

The Struggle for Power
Some kids are especially strong-willed and looking for a fight. If you butt heads, you may win the battle but find yourself losing the war if your home is turning into a battle-zone. Instead, avoid power-struggles by providing choices, using humor, starting the chore with your child, making a race of the chore (who can get done faster…), using hand-over-hand, utilizing the softer-and-closer approach, tag-teaming with your spouse (take a break and let your spouse intervene), reminding of good consequences for compliance, walking away and dealing with it later, giving a choice between a quick ten-minute time-out or losing TV for the rest of the night, and a host of other options. The larger your tool box is, the better-prepared you will be.

The safety zone
It’s sometimes necessary to turn the child’s bedroom in a safe and secure place for your child to calm. Otherwise, parents may find themselves restraining their child for extended periods of time, which often leads to someone getting hurt. If you find yourself in this situation, contact this psychologist, for guidance, at jcarosso@cpcwecare.com.

The Beauty of Behavior Charts
Yes, sticker charts can be a pain, but they sure can provide children with extra motivation to control themselves. When they don’t work it’s often because they’re being used incorrectly. It can be more complicated than people think to figure-out how often, how much, and for what should stickers and rewards be given. For example, it’s all for naught if you give a 4 year-old stickers once per day, and extra rewards once per week (a four year-old often needs reinforcement far more frequently). I’ve found it best that parents seek professional guidance to devise a chart but, in the meantime, see my earlier post explaining behavior charts.

The Medication Malady
Parents are usually hesitant to consider medication. However, many children who struggle with more extreme emotion respond very favorably to various medications. In more severe situations, it may be wise to consider seeing a psychiatrist and such can be arranged with Dr. Lowenstein here at CPC.

What About Autism?
Many of these strategies also pertain to children with autism. However, we would also want to target sensory issues, language difficulties, and socialization deficits that can quickly lead to heightened emotion. It’s vital that we avoid sensory overload, find ways for children with autism to communicate their needs and wants, and avoid social situations that we know will likely contribute to frustration. I’ll write a separate post on managing meltdowns for children who have autism.

The Spiritual Connection
Get your child involved in activities that enhance spiritual development (church services, Sunday School, Children’s Ministries, Youth Group, Retreats, listening to KLOVE (98.3FM), playing with Spiritually-Minded friends…). It is comforting to be reminded that God loves, cares, is a protector, comforter, helper during times of frustration, and that He’s only a prayer away (see my prior post, “the argument squelcher“).

Praise without Ceasing
Always be on the look-out for good behavior, self-control, and cooperation. Praise whatever you want to see more of. Don’t miss an opportunity to praise your child for handling a situation without excess emotion, or for calming-down quicker than usual. Big hugs, high-fives, a big smile, and words of praise go a long way to increase your child’s motivation for next time.

I hope you find this post to be helpful in your effort to calm and comfort your child. If you want some more guidance in dealing with your kiddo’s emotional issues, don’t hesitate to email me at jcarosso@cpcwcare.com. In the meantime, God bless.

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Dr. John Carosso

Dr. Carosso has more than 30 years of experience as a licensed Child Clinical Psychologist and Certified School Psychologist working in private, inpatient, outpatient, residential, school, and home settings. He is Clinical Director of Community Psychiatric Centers (cpcwecare.com), a licensed Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic, and operates both the Autism Center of Pittsburgh (autismcenterofpittsburgh.com) and the Dyslexia Diagnostic and Treatment Center (dyslexiatreaters.com).