Tantrums & Meltdowns

Let’s be honest, these are the toughest moments for us as parents and teachers to handle. When the child in front of us is seemingly out of control we need to step in and help, but how.

The place to start is to consider the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. Tantrums are usually moments when you child actually still has control. Their tantrum has a purpose, usually to get something they want. Tantrums are designed to wear you down. Your job is to figure out how to respond to these moments so that you are helpful to your child and the skills he is learning. If your child doesn’t get what they want their tantrum can worsen before it gets better.

The second type of outburst is the meltdown, these are usually completely out of your child’s control. They are explosions of emotions that they cannot contain. They have flipped their thinking lid and no rational thought is being accessed.

Always keep your child and other people safe when your child is having an outburst. If everyone is safe, you can test whether they are having a tantrum or meltdown by leaving the room for a few seconds. Tantrums usually lose their gusto when you aren’t there to hear them, meltdowns don’t change in intensity or they get worse.

If your child has tantrums, you need to do the work to figure out what need is not being met. At face value you might say that they are wanting something they cannot have, such as another slice of cake or more screen time. These may be true but what is underlying this need? If connection is the core need of all children then you could re-evaluate whether you and your child have a secure attachment, then go to work on building that in a healthy way. Another consideration is learned behaviour, the way a child has learned to act in order to get their needs met. You can help them use a different way to get what they need. In some cases, you could even be dealing with the start of an addiction to something like sugar or screens. Mostly, the fix lies with you as the parent.

Meltdowns are something else entirely. While we all would definitely benefit from exploring the above areas, a meltdown is usually your child’s inability to regulate their system. This always looks so painful for the child, they seem to have no control over how they feel and what to do about it. Your starting point is to help them to feel safe, stay with them and console them. Keep yourself calm, they really need this from you. Slow down your breathing, your voice and your movements, this is how you regulate yourself and help them to regulate with you. They can start to hitch a ride on your regulated system. Now is not the time to be demanding anything of them. Hugs can really work but check out what they need.

If you have been doing some work in self-soothing then you can suggest some of these activities. Remember, they are not thinking when they are melting down, they are only feeling and those feelings are too much to contain. You may be doing the self-soothing techniques while they sit with you. Let them feel the effects of your self-soothing. Ultimately, we are looking for the child to be able to put the lid back on for themselves, to re-engage their thinking so that part of the brain is in the drivers seat and not the emotional part. The more you practice these skills, both during and between meltdowns, the more accessible they become for your child.

We have a quick summary chart that helps with what to do for each type of outburst which you can get by emailing us. There is a lot more at if you’d like to go deeper. Take a look at Dan Siegel‘s hand model of a meltdown, this is a really helpful analogy.

If you think about outbursts as communication, then you can start to get a better handle on what to do next. Your child doesn’t have an adult brain and if they have a diagnosis such as ADHD, Autism or even global delays then their language skills do not match their emotional experiences. And regulating emotions can be too hard to do on their own.

As a school, we take great pride in the ongoing work we do so that we can practice these skills with our students. Including teaching them self-soothing practices. We work on being calm and regulated ourselves. We ask parents what kind of morning or evening a child has had so that we have a context for their emotions. We have peaceful spaces for children to retreat to so that they can find their calm. We practice all of the coping skills recommended for children. We have regulation zones where children can get deep pressure from a weighted blanket or spandex hammock, they can get the movement they need on swings or they can get some fresh air on a walk about. We even use Brené Brown‘s idea of how to manage our own regulation and being able to call on other teachers when we are not managing, after all, having a lot of dysregulated kids can become too much sometimes. We use ‘in the weeds’ and ‘blown’ so that the team knows how to step in and help. Watch her talk about the power of emotions and this idea.

Our goal is to develop children in a way that is helpful, authentic and supportive. We work with children who are really struggling, not just to learn academically but with social interactions, emotional attunement and physical abilities. All of this is in pursuit of three things: an improved experience of childhood, increased access to learning and enabling each child’s potential.

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