What are Meltdowns in Childhood?
A meltdown in childhood is a failure to regulate strong emotions in an age-appropriate way.
A child may feel overwhelmed by an unexpected change in routine, a shift or transition from one activity to another, or something in the sensory environment. Meltdowns and tantrums are not the same thing. A tantrum is intended to get something or be rid of something (e.g., I want that cookie, I don’t want to wear a coat), while a meltdown is a failed attempt to manage a strong emotional reaction.
Some children appear to not handle everyday life like other kids. It seems like everything that happens impacts them much more than expected. A simple splinter might lead to a day of screaming, crying, or even a trip to the doctor. Your child may see a dead animal on the side of the road and react with hysterics, being impossible to console. A trip to the crowded grocery store on Christmas Eve might end with your child sobbing on the floor. Your child may have trouble controlling their behavior, impulses, or using good communication skills when emotions overwhelm them.
It may seem like nothing you do makes your child happy. You may feel like you are riding a roller coaster as your child becomes frustrated and then quickly drops into a sense of despair and hopelessness or an angry emotional rant. Your child may become easily annoyed and may seem to be overly reactive. It may be hard to get your child interested in activities or interests.
Alternately, your child may be so intensely interested that they are unable to ‘let it go’ when a particular activity doesn’t go their way. If your child seems highly sensitive to events and other stimuli in the environment, it may be that emotional regulation is a problem for them.
Symptoms of Emotional Regulation Issues in Children
- Shuts down: becomes silent, curls in a ball, and does not react to your efforts to offer support when the task at hand seems manageable to you. Maybe there is a science essay to write, or your child lost a game of monopoly to a sibling
- Is dramatic: a conflict with a friend leads to sobbing and declaring the end of the world; or going to a busy restaurant is an automatic ‘no, it’ll sound like the walls are caving in’
- Acts like they are on an emotional roller coaster: one moment things are great, and their friends are wonderful. In the next moment, no one likes them, and they are a social outcast
- Has sudden emotional reactions that look like a tantrum: seems fine one moment, and then emotions are big and feel out of proportion to what is happening (excited to ride the train for the first time and then sobbing in fear of the vehicle derailing)
- Displays reactions that are way out of proportion to the situation: the candy cane breaks, and your child cries for an hour
- Prone to sensory overload: terrified of autoflush toilets, the hand dryer, getting a haircut, fire alarms, and the list goes on and on
- Seems to always be on the edge of tears: is a very emotional person who you may describe as extremely sensitive
- Escalates quickly: goes from 0-60 in ten seconds; feels hard to help your child regulate and respond with rational thought, things become emotional so quickly
Causes of Meltdowns
If your child’s mood is constantly shifting, there can be cause for concern. Kids who ‘go from 0-60 in 10 seconds flat’ display emotional regulation problems. Many kids with and without disorders have emotional regulation issues at certain times in life. Very young children may throw a fit to get what they want and seem to get overly upset often. That may be developmentally normal so long as the meltdowns aren’t more than a couple of times per week and do not last for more than 10-15 minutes. If your child isn’t having meltdowns often and can be calmed down, this pattern could be normal. Teenagers sometimes go through a period where they are very dysregulated, and again it is okay so long as they are not melting down more than a few times a week or more than 15 minutes at a time.
Recognized experts consider emotional regulation like ‘air traffic control’ because your child has to monitor and direct all the ‘thought traffic’ in their mind. They have to think about hurt feelings, appropriate behavior, a noisy fan in the background, and an annoyingly itchy sweater, all while deciding whether or not to punch that kid on the playground who would not let them join the game. For some children, these skills come more naturally. For others, extreme emotions take over, and it is tough for them to gain their composure and return to functioning appropriately.
A little-known symptom of ADHD is the persistent issue with regulating emotions. Arguably the most highly recognized expert in ADHD, Russel Barkley shares that emotional regulation has a significant impact on life functioning skills for those with the disorder. Remember that emotions come from the lower brain centers where our survival instincts live. This lower brain is sometimes called our ‘reptile brain’ because it is the oldest brain structure we have and it is primal to animal survival. However, the emotions are actually regulated in the higher brain structures that do the thinking, planning, and decision making. These functions are impaired in ADHD so it stands to reason that emotional regulation would be a significant symptom in this disorder. 
Challenges here could also be related to temperament
Temperament refers to our predisposition to personality characteristics. Temperament is present from birth, and every person will have a different style. Most people have heard of someone being an introvert or extrovert. These terms refer to an individual’s social engagement style and whether they see large social gatherings as energizing or exhausting. Other aspects of temperament may also impact mood. If your child generally has a higher level of negative emotionality, it is not necessarily indicative of a disability. It could help if you parent with a focus on behavior management and instituting positive reinforcement and reward. You may need to approach these situations more carefully than your friends approach their children. Some children are much harder to parent than others.
Children and teenagers who are anxious are more prone to be overwhelmed by emotions, particularly if something does not go as expected. Your child may have huge anxiety and emotional reactions because they feel out of control. This moment can lead to a spiraling feeling. Your child might be trying to hold it together each day for hours and hours, and then something small changes or happens that disrupts an award. Someone ate the last bag of popcorn, and your teenager is crying on the pantry floor. These tears are not about popcorn; they are about emotional overwhelm and lack of control.
Difficulty with shift
Some children struggle to shift their focus and move from one activity to another. Often this is seen in children with ADHD or the autism spectrum, but many children may sometimes struggle to shift. If your child cannot move their brain from this activity to the next, they may get overwhelmed. Without the right strategies, asking for a break, or putting something down to finish later, you may have a big emotional meltdown.
Some children or teenagers are more sensitive to sensory stimuli than others. In a busy, crowded, loud space, you may find that your child does not have the reserves to handle any small thing that may occur. It could be so overwhelming to be at the bustling festival, for example, that spilling an ice cream cone feels like the end of the world. While in your kitchen, though, it would be no big deal and a quick fix. Sensory sensitivity is not the cause of constant behavior problems, but it can lead to an emotional meltdown without the right coping strategies and support in place.
The Typical Emotional Regulation Trajectory
Expert in child development, Toni Linder, Ph.D., describes the following developmentally typical trajectory for the ‘Regulation of Emotional States’:
30 months: “May become aggressive in disputes with other children around possessions or interference with activities.”, p.183. 
We do not expect toddlers to regulate emotions on their own. They typically hit or bite each other when upset and cannot understand a discussion about feeling states.
36 months (3 years): “Is able to talk about emotions and what elicits them. Is able to request adult’s help to handle emotions. May begin to recover from tantrums by him/herself.” p.184. 
Once your child reaches preschool, we would want to see them start to talk to adults about their feelings and recover from some tantrums on their own. If your child is not doing so, the teacher may say something like, ‘he’s a melter’ or ‘he is having lots of tantrums.’
48 months (4 years): “Occasional aggression with peers. May demonstrate extremes of emotions. Wants to feel in control, talks to self and others about feelings and how to feel better.”, p.184. 
Once your child is almost done with preschool, they should be able to identify strong emotions and begin to learn how to calm down when upset.
60 months (5 years): “Able to think about emotions and use discussion to help calm. Self-talk helps child control emotions”, p.185. 
When your child approaches Kindergarten or primary school at the age of 5, they should calm down successfully and talk about their feelings and coping skills.
72 months (6 years): “Can moderate emotions in different situations as appropriate (e.g., church, playground). Can think about emotions and make conscious changes to responses.”, p.185. 
The guide above helps clinicians and parents think about whether the child has delays in their emotional regulation and associated development.
What to Do About Emotional Regulation Challenges
Consider how much these symptoms are getting in the way of your child’s happiness. If a delay as described above is present, think about why. For a gifted child, a delay in emotional regulation often occurs because of the inherent intensity and sensitivity of the gifted mind. (If you think your child may be gifted, it might be worthwhile to consider an IQ test by a School Psychologist or Licensed Psychologist. Your community may have gifted programs or associations to help you manage their gifted needs.)
Start with some parenting approaches meant to help support the development of self-regulation strategies. Dr. Siegel offers many brilliant strategies to help your child learn to self-regulate .
Dr. Siegel teaches that your child’s emotions are regulated in the ‘downstairs brain,’ which is the part of the brain that is built for survival and engages in the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses. When your child is in the downstairs brain, no amount of talking, negotiating, or heaping on of punishments will alter their behavior.
It is time to model calm behavior and nurture your child’s calming strategies. Then, and only then, you can begin to process what has happened with your child. This processing will grow the upstairs brain, where executive functions such as planning and problem solving reside. At home, keep in mind these ‘do’s and don’ts.’
Top 11 Things Parents Can Do to Diffuse a Meltdown
- Don’t allow your child to engage you in a power struggle. Resist the urge to be just as emotionally reactive as your child.
- Do let your child know calmly that you’re happy to talk when they are using a more positive tone. Listen and model calm no matter how upset your child gets. Your calm demeanor is the best defense against the escalating meltdown.
- Don’t respond to rude or abusive language. If your child is berating and belittling you with their words, do not engage. It is okay to walk away, ignore them, or lock the door to your room. You can start communicating again when the child begins to respond more appropriately.
- Do provide a safe space. Allow your child a place to go that is safe and quiet. Provide coping strategies they have identified in advance, such as music, drawing paper and crayons, fidget toys, a beanbag chair, soft pillows, noise-canceling earphones, etc. If a child or teen can go to a quiet place when they feel overwhelmed, they can learn to notice, label, and regulate their emotions.
- Don’t tell your child how to feel or discredit or deny any emotions. Do validate and reframe what your child is trying to say. If your child says, “I hate my life.” Don’t say, “Your life is wonderful. Do you know how lucky you are? Children are starving in the world.”
- Do reflect back your child’s feelings. You can say, “It sounds like you had a terrible day. I’m here if you want to talk.” Even if you do not agree with your child’s opinion of the situation, just showing that you are listening can help them calm down.
- Do encourage your child to find and engage in coping strategies. Help them identify activities that they find relaxing or enjoyable. These strategies could be exercise, listening to music, reading a good book, drawing or writing, having a mug of tea, or cuddling with the cat.
- Do help your child identify mood states and notice when it is a good time to take a break. To do something to help themselves feel better. Apps for our phones that provide guided meditation and mindfulness practice can help children manage mood symptoms with breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation.
- Consider yoga, stretching, or a relaxing walk. If your child wants to learn how to relax their muscles and breathing to remain calm, yoga or other slow movement activities may be helpful.
- Do read and talk about feelings. A good book for a child having temper tantrums is “Soda Pop Head.” The book describes a child who is always about to ‘blow his lid’ over incidents with peers and siblings. He learns to use strategies like deep breathing and the ‘push, pull, dangle’ muscle relaxation strategy to calm down. As the boy in the story calms himself, he lets a little pressure out of the ‘bottle’ so he does not blow his lid. Reading this book can be an excellent way to ‘externalize’ the blame and treat this problem as something that many people struggle with and can work to improve .
- Do discuss feelings and think about coping strategies when your child is calm and in control. Help your child be a problem solver. Help them decide what they need to feel calm and in control. There is scientific evidence to suggest that when children are actively taught how to process feelings and plan for a better outcome next time, they are able to improve their executive functions and even grow their intelligence. These ‘teachable moments’ can be painful but effective in building your child’s skills.
When to Seek Help for Emotional Regulation Challenges
If your child’s rapidly shifting emotional state is getting in the way of school performance, friendships, and overall happiness, it may be necessary to consider an evaluation or therapeutic support.
It may be that your child has an underlying issue, such as autism, depression, or anxiety, that is essentially ‘disabling’ their self-regulation functions.
Professional Resources on Emotional Regulation
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms
- ABA therapist: to treat behavior; can conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the function of the tantrum behavior that can help guide treatment
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts
Similar Conditions to Meltdowns in Children
- Giftedness: gifted children are highly sensitive and intense, and they may struggle to regulate their emotions resulting in frequent meltdowns
- Developmental delay (intellectual and developmental disability): delays in development may cause struggles in the understanding of and management of emotions
- Anxiety: excessive worry that has an impact on day-to-day functioning may lead to frequent meltdowns
- Depression: depressed mood, or, in children, pervasive irritability; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, temper tantrums may be part of irritability. All of these symptoms may lead to meltdowns
- Bipolar disorder: depressed mood, or, in children, pervasive irritability; alternating with periods of elevated mood, pressured speech, and goal-directed activity; in children, cycles tend to be less differentiated; they may blend together. Bipolar children will have frequent meltdowns or temper tantrums
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD): depressed mood, or, in children, pervasive irritability, leading to behavioral outbursts or meltdowns. Children with DMDD will have frequent acting out behaviors and tantrums
- Autism spectrum disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors tend to lead children to be more rigid and struggle to shift, which can lead to an emotional meltdown
- Attachment disorder (trauma and attachment disorders): rigidity and extreme behaviors that stem from challenges in attachment to primary caregivers (ex. death of a parent, change of caregivers, previous abuse)
- Temperament: a high level of negative emotionality may be part of temperament. As most parents know, people are born with a certain personality style. The question to ask is, “does this behavior impair daily functioning?” If there is not a huge impact, you may attribute the tantrums to temperament and use parenting strategies to help your child learn to self-regulate.
References on Meltdowns in Children
 Russell Barkley (August, 2018). 30 Essential Ideas You Should Know About ADHD. 1B Inhibition, Impulsivity, and Emotion.
 Cook, Julia (2011). Soda pop head.
Resources on Meltdowns in Children
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Huebner, Dawn (2006). What to do when you grumble too much (A kid’s guide to overcoming negativity).
Lewis, Ph.D., Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). BrainStars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.
Lichtenheld, Tom (2007). What are you so grumpy about?
Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child. Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.