Imagine this: a mom picks up her eight year old daughter from school. As the car doors close and seat belts are fastened, stories of recess begin. Then, without warning, this sweet girl begins to cry wildly, thrashing in her seat, biting and scratching herself. The mom wonders to herself, what just happened?
This scenario is a regular occurrence for most parents who have children with special needs. These episodes are now being referred to as a “meltdown” by various medical professionals, educators and parents of special needs children. While the term meltdown is usually used in reference to a child with special needs, typically functioning children, or adults for that matter, may also experience an occurrence from time to time.
So what is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum? Most children go through a stage where throwing a tantrum is commonplace. In this stage of development, a tantrum is typically a result of not receiving something that they want. The tactic of a tantrum usually wanes as the child enters grade school. For children who have special needs, physical or emotional, the act of a meltdown is not about using a tactic; it is a symptom signaling that something deeper is happening. This is not to say that children with special needs don’t throw tantrum — they do, and they know how and when to use them. Still, it is important to realize that there is a difference between the two episodes.
A meltdown usually occurs when the child has been under stress, is anxious or is exhausted by the goings-on of the day. Most people learn how to respond to their environment and regulate their emotions. When something unexpected, stressful or negative happens we deal with it and are then able to bring our emotions back within a ‘normal’ range. When a child has a difficult time responding to his or her environment, either due to physical or emotional reasons, it can be difficult to return to a state of normalcy. Once a stress-inducing event has happened, the child is unable to regain a state of emotional equilibrium. For children with special needs, a stressful event may be something simple, for example, the light might be too bright or the volume of the classroom might be too loud. Each event and reaction continues to build throughout the day. The emotional state of these children can often resemble a roller coaster ride that never comes to a full and complete stop. Once a child is not longer able to hold it together, the meltdown ensues.
So, what can you do if your child is experiencing meltdowns? Become a detective. Take note of when the meltdowns occur. Look for patterns and triggers. Take note of the activities they are engaged in and the time of day or night. Also consider what foods have been eaten throughout the day. Once you identify the triggers, avoid them, as much as you can. Talk to a professional who can help teach you and your child coping strategies. Perhaps most importantly, be patient, and remember, you are not alone.