Many people are unaware that there is a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. While both may involve screaming, kicking, shouting, biting and even swearing, there are some fundamental differences. Tantrums involve a child who has been frustrated in their attempt to do or have something, they usually only occur with an audience and they’ll usually abate once the child has what they want. Meltdowns on the other hand are a reaction to feeling overloaded or overwhelmed and there is no end goal or need for an audience.
Meltdowns are the most common complaint of parents who have children with sensory processing issues and can result from trips to the supermarket, parties, classrooms or even just a bumpy sock.
Most often, these children have trouble transitioning from one activity to another and may meltdown every day when they have to move from playing to school or from bath-time to bedtime.
Their brains are continuously receiving jumbled messages from their senses and just getting through the day can be incredibly frustrating and overwhelming. Because they are often not getting enough proprioception, they seek ways to stimulate their muscles and joints (which can be very calming for them) and so may seem to be in perpetual motion. They tend to be both under and over stimulated at the same time!
Here are some tips both for avoiding the meltdowns in the first place, and for calming a child who is becoming over stimulated and ready to crack.
Firstly, predictability is very important for these children. They need to know what is happening and what will happen next and need lots of warning if there will be changes in their routine and/or if they need to transition to a new activity or environment. Making a picture chart of their daily routine can be helpful with the little ones so that they know what to expect next.
Consistency is important too. Being very consistent with rules and consequences and with your own reactions to things.
Never ever restrict movement time as a punishment. I’m not a fan of punishment at all, as “bad behaviour” is really just a communication from a child that something is not right, but these children do need predictable and clear boundaries in order to feel safe.
It is essential to keep their blood sugar levels stable. Low blood sugar levels can exacerbate the symptoms and meltdowns. High protein, high fat and low carb diets are ideal. Sugar is a no-go area.
Having a sensory retreat can be very helpful for recovering from a meltdown. Have a quiet, dark area like a tent with lots of pillows, some soft music, a chew toy and maybe even a weighted blanket.
When you’re out and about, make sure you have a bottle with ice cold water and a straw for them to drink from, keep a pack of chewy snacks like biltong, raisins etc, have a stress ball or Prestick or a strip of Velcro for them to play with, get them to carry a heavy backpack, and consider purchasing some soundproof headphones to block out excess noise.
At home, useful aids include an indoor or outdoor trampoline, a weighted blanket, a pilates ball, a rocking chair or swing. They need safe ways to jump, kick, run, push, pull and punch. This could involve jungle gyms or pull up bars, or even just pushing a heavy bag around the house or pulling a heavy wagon on a walk (or even pushing the trolley or carrying heavy groceries at the shops).
Bath time can be improved by scrubbing them with a rough brush or sponge or giving them a deep massage after the bath, having a massage jet spray in the bath, and buying them an electric toothbrush instead of the ordinary ones. At cooking time, give your sensory child something to do like heavy mixing, rolling of dough, carrying heavy pots or tenderising meat with a mallet. Helping around the house can also be very calming for them – get them to vacuum or move furniture so you can clean or to do the heavy digging in the garden. Playtime on rainy days can be supplemented with indoor obstacle courses or creating an indoor sandpit with beans or popcorn instead of sand and the usual cups, shovels, cars etc.
Other calming tips can include using a special video or song to transition between two activities, placing a heating pad on the back of their neck, using lavender or chamomile essential oils dropped behind their ears, drinking chamomile tea, and even sandwiching them between two pillows and squashing them.
There is some research now to suggest that kids with sensory processing issues have inflammation in the brain, which can be relieved by supplementing high doses of Omega 3’s and curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric). A regular probiotic can also help.
It is also hugely beneficial if you are calm. Doing some deep breathing when your child is losing it will ensure that you can think clearly and come up with solutions to pull them out of their meltdown instead of joining them in it!
Remember that your child is not trying to be naughty or difficult, they are genuinely struggling to keep it together in the world and to feel ok in their own skin. A bit of patience, a lot of creativity, and some forethought can go a long way towards helping these kids to get through a day without a meltdown.