When we think of the word meltdown, we may think of the economy or stock market, glaciers, nuclear meltdowns or even volcanoes erupting. These are all examples of things collapsing from being over-stressed, overheating, a major disruption to a system or an internal collapse. Using the word meltdown to describe people is similar. In homes across America, even as we settle into quarantine, slow down our lives and find ways to enjoy our time together, there may be more meltdowns happening that are filled with tears, screams and lots of “No, I don’t want to!” Adults and children are becoming overheated, over-stressed, and our systems are over-burdened. And when a system can no longer take it, it melts down, boils over, erupts, or crashes and burns. In these moments, it is the only way of coping – to let loose, let off of steam, erupt – or just plain melt down. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but each of us is doing the best we can to cope with a difficult environment. We’re trying to do the best we can, because our biological system is in a meltdown. We are not responding; instead we are reacting from our “downstairs” brain and not our “upstairs” brain.
A meltdown may be an explosion and look like crying, throwing things, yelling, aggressing, breaking things, etc. Or it may be more like an implosion – a withdrawal from the family, hiding, sleeping more, lethargy, etc. Both are the same in many ways biologically; the system is in fight, fright or freeze. A meltdown should be viewed as a “neurological storm.” This fight, flight or freeze response is not a child being “bad” or disrespectful, but rather is “bad behavior” that needs to be changed. Remember, it is their best attempt to cope, not a deliberate, willful, defiant act towards you. It is your child saying, “Help me – I can’t help myself! I’ve lost it!” This is not a time to teach, reason with, or win a battle. It is a fire to be put out, and you as the parent or caretaker is the firefighter. It’s a crisis to be managed, and you become your child’s “upstairs brain” or frontal lobe (even though you may want to react from your “downstairs brain,” because you may also be losing it.
Everyone wants to have a good day. Remember, when it’s going in a different direction, you are the adult. You can take a breath and even walk away (if you can) for a few seconds to compose yourself. This allows you to respond versus react. It is your job to manage the situation and take the emotional high road (often easier said than done). In these moments, it is really only about a few things.
- Safety and dignity
- Keep calm and reduce/simplify your language
- Keep calm and know this too shall pass
- Don’t get pulled off topic by all the things your child is saying or doing – this is a rabbit hole that you won’t emerge from
- Mention what you want to have happen, rather than what you want to stop (“Bang your pillow” instead of “Stop banging the wall”)
- Establish connection – right brain to right brain. Remember the mantra, “Name it to tame it.” (i.e. I know this is hard; I know you don’t want to do it; I wouldn’t want to either; or I know you don’t like it, etc.)
About the Author
NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.
Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.
To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.