A meltdown is an intense reaction to overwhelming stress. They often happen because of sensory overload. Keeping tamariki safe until the meltdown has subsided is the number one priority. Calming strategies can be used to support tamariki with meltdowns.

Meltdowns are different from temper tantrums

A meltdown is different from a temper tantrum, and so are the ways of supporting tamariki while experiencing them.

A tantrum happens when a tamaiti is trying to communicate, usually about what they want and how they feel. If they struggle to make their feelings clear, it can result in anger and frustration.

A tantrum is a normal part of child development, and can be interrupted and used as an opportunity to learn.

Learn more about tantrums

A meltdown is different. It happens when a tamaiti is overwhelmed. They may lose control, which can result in screaming, crying, and lashing out.

This loss of control will mean they have difficulty understanding what is being said to them. This is especially true of neurodivergent and disabled tamariki. It's important to remember that meltdowns are not deliberate or a result of the tamaiti being naughty.

Keeping them safe until the meltdown has subsided is the number one priority. Once they are safe, whānau can then concentrate on calming strategies.

The word “neurodivergent” refers to people whose brains work differently than what is considered “typical”. It includes autistic people.

Know the triggers

Common triggers are changes in routine, anxiety, sensory overload, and having trouble communicating. Writing a diary of when a meltdown happens is a good way for whānau to try and figure out what might have caused it, and what helped afterwards.

Look for warning signs

Many tamariki will show signs that they are becoming overwhelmed and may meltdown.

Neurodivergent tamariki may stim (make repetitive sounds or movements), pace, ask repetitive questions, or become very still. At this point it may be possible to avert a full-blown meltdown with distractions or other calming strategies. But other times a meltdown may feel like it's come from nowhere.

The most important job for whānau is to support their tamaiti through the meltdown, even if that's sitting nearby, and make sure their tamaiti knows they are safe.

How to respond to a meltdown (sensory overload)

  • The number one priority is to make sure the child is in an environment that is safe and cannot be hurt during their intense emotional time.
  • Create a quiet, calm space. Turn off any loud music and turn down bright lights. Ask any onlookers for space and privacy.
  • Stay calm with deep breathing and counting to ten and back, if it helps.
  • Keep words and actions simple and specific. Instead of “Are you okay?” ask “Is it too loud?” or say “I’m taking you to a quiet place”. Be patient with responses.
  • A child in the middle of a meltdown is doing their best in a stressful situation. Let them know their effort is appreciated.
  • Use a toolkit of calming strategies that are known to work. These may be listening to music, playing a game, or providing squeeze balls, fidget toys, or treasured soft toys.
  • Accept that meltdowns can be part of being neurodivergent. Sometimes they happen and they aren’t anyone’s fault.
  • After a meltdown, everyone will need time to reset.

It can be embarrassing, stressful, and even frightening when a child is having a meltdown, especially if it happens in a public place. Whānau may find it useful to explain to others what’s happening, and what they can do to support tamaiti while having a meltdown.

It can be hard not to worry what others think, but if whānau react calmly and take charge of the situation, others will see that they know what they’re doing. Remind whānau to have confidence in their parenting skills – they know their tamaiti best!

Conversation ideas

How do you currently support your tamaiti with meltdowns?
What did you notice your tamaiti doing the last time they had a meltdown? What was happening just before?
What are some of the things that help when a meltdown happens?
What are some of the different ways that your tamaiti communicates that they’re becoming overwhelmed?
Does your tamaiti have a special toy, song, or game that helps them feel calm and safe?

Awhi Ngā Mātua

Content adapted from our partner Awhi Ngā Mātua, an online community for parents and whānau of disabled and medically fragile tamariki.

Visit Awhi Ngā Mātua(external link)