What are Meltdowns in Childhood?
A meltdown in childhood is when a child loses control of strong emotions.
A child may feel stressed if their schedule changes or they switch tasks. Meltdowns and tantrums are not the same thing. A tantrum happens when someone wants or doesn’t want something, like a cookie or a coat. A meltdown is when someone can’t control their strong emotions.
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, when overwhelmed, may struggle. Their behavior, self-control, and communication may suffer.
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
It may seem like nothing you do makes your child happy. Your child’s emotions may fluctuate rapidly, from frustration to despair or anger. 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.
Your child might be extremely interested and have trouble moving on if things don’t go their way. If your child is easily affected by things happening around them, they may have trouble managing their emotions.
Ten Causes of Meltdowns and Emotional Regulation Issues
1. Normal development
Kids who ‘go from 0-60 in 10 seconds flat’ are having emotional regulation difficulties. Many kids without disorders have emotional regulation challenges 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. Do your best to offer support without getting rattled yourself. Often the best approach you can take is to sit quietly by your child and listen. If you do decide to make a comment, you can simply say, “I’m here for you.” Many times, that simple statement can be enough.
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 a child’s emotional regulation. 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 do. Some children are much harder to parent than others based on their temperament and personality.
3. Mood issues
If your child’s mood is constantly shifting, there can be cause for concern. A child with a mood disorder will have intense ups and downs that seem to come out of nowhere. These may be warning signs for a mood disorder.
In this case, it does not seem to matter much what is happening in the child’s life; their mood will rapidly shift. The child may go from very happy to extremely upset without warning. The family will often feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster.
4. Executive functioning issues
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 at the same time. These thoughts are all circulating while a child is deciding whether or not to smack 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. One way to help your child with this is to teach them about their own triggers. If certain sounds or clothing tend to trigger their meltdowns, it may be possible to either remove the triggering event or teach your child what to do when this happens. For ideas on coping with these moments, see these videos from Dr. Marcy Willard and Dr. Anna Kroncke. For ideas on how to identify triggers, see this video playlist.
A little-known symptom of ADHD is the persistent issue with regulating emotions. Arguably the most highly recognized expert in ADHD, Russell 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.  Taken together, emotional regulation issues are commonly associated with ADHD.
6. Autism Spectrum Disorder
Many autistic people have difficulties regulating emotions. In the case of either ADHD or Autism, emotional regulation issues are common. Autistic meltdowns may look like tantrums, crying, or extreme irritability. Getting the right supports in place at school will be important.
Some children with ASD will benefit from a 504 Plan, which allows for classroom accommodations. Others may need an Individualized Education Program, which includes services such as mental health time, speech, or occupational therapy.
An autistic child should not be expected to manage a long school day without any support. Although there may be some kids with ASD who can manage their emotions quite well, this is not the norm. Many kids with autism will need their own ‘cozy corner’ to calm down after a distressing situation. They may also need a reward chart to provide positive reinforcement for displaying positive classroom behavior. Finally, many autistic kids will need support from a mental health professional such as a school psychologist or social worker.
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 their emotional state. 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.
8. Difficulty with cognitive flexibility
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 typically developing children may sometimes struggle to shift. Essentially, they have a nervous system overload. The child will have a really hard time when plans do not go as expected, or there is a minor disappointment.
If your child cannot move their brain from this activity to the next, they may get overwhelmed. Without the right strategies, you may have a big emotional meltdown. For many kids in school, it can be important to teach them how to ask for a break. It can be helpful for kids to learn to put something down and finish it later when they are not as upset. If you think your child may need these accommodations, talk to the school counselor or a teacher as soon as possible.
9. Sensory sensitivity
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. These sensory meltdowns are not uncommon in toddlers or preschoolers.
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 supports in place.
10. Recent changes in family structure or environment
Just like the rest of us, kids tend to have a harder time when things change rapidly. If you recently moved across town or your child just changed schools, this can be distressing for your child. The death of a pet or a loved one can be a precursor to emotional regulation issues.
If your child is having meltdowns after a big change, there is probably no need to be concerned. Psychologists typically suggest that these behaviors should start to resolve in 3 to 6 months after the distressing event.
Keep an eye on your child’s meltdowns. It can be helpful to keep a journal or a diary to track this. If your child’s meltdowns are getting less frequent or less intense over time, it is likely that these issues will resolve over time. If it is not resolving or seems to be worsening after 6 months, the event is unlikely to be causing the issues. In that case, you would want to seek support from a psychotherapist or other mental health professional.
The Typical Emotional Regulation Trajectory
As kids grow, we expect a much different level of skill in terms of emotional regulation. Toddlers and preschoolers often have difficulty managing strong feelings.
Expert in child development, Toni Linder, Ph.D., describes the following developmentally typical trajectory for the ‘Regulation of Emotional States’ in her research. See the following list to get a sense for what would be expected in terms of emotional regulation based on your child’s age.
Emotional regulation skills at 2.5 years old (30 months)
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.
Dr. Linder explains, “[Child] may become aggressive in disputes with other children around possessions or interference with activities.”, p.183. 
Emotional regulation skills at 3 years old (36 months)
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.’
Dr. Linder describes, “[Child] 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. 
Emotional regulation skills at 4 years old (48 months)
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. Your child’s tantrums will be less intense and less frequent than in the toddler years.
Dr. Linder says, “[Child may experience] 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. 
Emotional regulation skills at 5 years old (60 months)
When your child approaches Kindergarten or primary school at the age of 5, your child’s meltdowns will be less frequent, and they should calm down successfully and talk about their feelings in a simple way. For example, your 5-year-old would be able to say, “I feel mad” or “I got mad because he cut in front of me in line.”
Dr. Linder shares, “[Child is] able to think about emotions and use discussion to help calm. Self-talk helps child control emotions”, p.185. 
Emotional regulation skills at 6 years old (72 months)
When your child reaches 6 years old, psychologists expect the child to understand the reactions that are appropriate in certain situations. It is still common for children to need to use coping skills to calm down and to have an occasional meltdown. At this age, meltdowns would not be frequent, and the child would be able to effectively calm down within 10-15 minutes.
Dr. Linder describes, “[Child] can moderate emotions in different situations as appropriate (e.g., church, playground). Can think about emotions and make conscious changes to responses.”, p.185. 
Emotional regulation skills at 7 years old and older
Kids will work on emotional regulation skills their whole life. It is okay for your child’s skills to fluctuate a bit as they mature.
When children are around this age, it can be good to teach your child that they have the power to take a minute and choose their responses to situations. Psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The quote here will be harder for younger kids to understand, but you can model this in your parenting. You can show your child how you take a break before responding to a distressing situation. You might say things like, “I am going to take a minute before I write back to this text. I will do better with this once I am calm. In this way, you can show your child how you have the power to choose how to respond to upsetting situations.”
Although we all will need to work on emotional regulation our whole lives, there is a typical trajectory, as described above. Use this as a guide to think about whether your 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.” Instead, say this, “You seem pretty bummed out. Some days are like this. I am here to listen.”
- Do reflect back your child’s feelings. You want your child to feel heard. Don’t say, “Oh, don’t be silly, Honey. This is no big deal.” Instead, say, “It sounds like you had a terrible day. I’m here for you.” Even if you do not agree with your child’s opinion of the situation, just showing you are here to listen 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.
If, instead, your child is a bit behind the trajectory in this area (see the guide above), there may be no cause for concern. We do not expect toddlers to regulate their own emotions. Many preschoolers will not manage their emotional reactions very well. Keep in mind also that temperament can be a factor. Some children are simply a bit more sensitive than others, and that is to be expected.
Gifted kids and kids with ADHD often will have some difficulties with emotional regulation. Finally, consider major changes to your family life. If you recently moved, got a divorce, or changed schools, expect your child to be a bit more emotional for a while. Keep an eye on it for 3-6 months. These issues may be resolved on their own over time.
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.