Child Having a Meltdown? Here Are 7 Tips to Help Calm Them

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If you’re a parent of a child on the spectrum, you may know how difficult meltdowns can be. They’re not only frustrating but also heartbreaking; you love your child more than life itself, and watching them in such a heightened state of distress makes you feel like you’re being ripped in half. Sure, you can do your best to prevent meltdowns, but that’s not always feasible. So what do you do when they strike? Here are seven actions you can try taking. (Hint: many of these tips can also help you handle anxiety in general!)

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1. Keep Your Cool

Kids can often pick up on their parents’ negative emotions. A testy tone or a harsh word during a meltdown may just fuel the fire by upsetting them even further. In order to help your child regulate their emotions, ensure yours are in check. If you feel you’re about to explode, take a deep breath through your nose for four seconds, hold it for two, and let it out slowly through your mouth for six. Pause for a moment before repeating this ritual. The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it while helping your child.

2. Apply Deep Pressure

Deep pressure therapy is often helpful for kids on the spectrum when they’re in distress. If you have something like a weighted blanket, use it to cover your child. If not, hugging or massaging them may also help. Just make sure they’re okay with it by asking something like, “Do you need a hug?” or “Do you want me to rub your shoulders?”

3. Tone Down the Environment

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Reducing sensory input may seem pretty basic, but it’s big for those with Sensory Processing Disorder. Dim the lights. Bring down the noise. If possible and appropriate, remove your child’s clothes if they’re contributing to sensory overload. If none of that is possible, do your best to remove your child from the situation.

4. Empathize Instead of Rationalize

Ever been extremely upset and had someone say “Calm down?” It probably made everything even worse. Similarly, when a person is anxious due to a meltdown, emotion has hijacked their brain. You may be frustrated, but telling them about how they’re going to miss the bus if they don’t hurry will likely be unhelpful at best, counterproductive at worst; your child may feel their pain is being dismissed. Instead, try to get inside their head and feel what they feel. Say things like, “I know all these noises and lights hurt,” or “I know you feel like the world is ending,” or “I know you’re scared.” Be sure to speak very softly, too!

5. Redirect Their Mind

Introduce a distraction. Offer them a toy, sing their favorite song… whatever you think will offer them a suitable, healthy diversion. Don’t stop them from stimming; it’s often a way for them to self-soothe.

6. Decide Where You Stand on the Restraint Debate

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Should a parent physically restrain their child who is having a meltdown? It’s a dicey question, the answer of which should be left up to the parent to decide (so long as the restraint does not border into abuse, of course). Some parents may use this tactic if their children hurt others or themselves during a meltdown. But for those who don’t want to use restraint, “guiding” the child’s actions may be an alternative. For instance, if they try to bang their head against something hard, intervene by putting a pillow between their head and the target surface.

7. Give Them a Special Spot

Whether it’s a tent, a spare room, or a cozy corner, having a Safe Place for your child to go in the midst of a meltdown can help them regain a sense of calm. It not only establishes structure and routine but also allows them to have much-needed alone time.

Of course, every child is different, and what works for some may not work for others. Check out what these parents do for their son!

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.