*Note: The following article is around Sensory Meltdowns. This is also different for children who have sensory processing disorders. Please note these are general tips to manage sensory meltdowns.*
Some children can become overwhelmed when they receive too much sensory stimulation from their environment. Some children experience sensory meltdowns when they get overly stimulated and they lack the tools to process everything they are trying to take in. With the right techniques, it is possible to calm a child experiencing a sensory meltdown.
When trying to calm a sensory meltdown, it is important to remember the child’s behaviour is not the problem. It is a symptom of the problem of too much sensory stimuli. Your approach should not focus on correcting their behaviour or punishing them for acting inappropriately.
Your goal is to help your child find tools to reduce the noise, sights, and triggers in the moment and learn techniques to manage those types of stressors in the future. It can be challenging for both parent and child to ride out the meltdown. However, it is possible to stop the meltdown sooner. Here are some ways to help your child calm down before they tire themselves out.
Let Them Find a Quiet Environment
Your child is having a sensory meltdown as a result of sensory overload. Because the reason for their meltdown is too much stimulus, it can be helpful to remove as much stimuli as possible.
That means reducing the noise and sights that triggered them or removing them from a stressful situation. Children have a limit to how much they can take in and process. Sometimes, when they reach that limit, they shut down or lash out. In order to bring them back to steady state, help them find a calm environment.
Let’s say you’re your child is at their first day of soccer practice.
- With new children
- With a new coach
- Playing a new sport they’ve never tried before
- In a new place
- Doing vigorous physical activity
This can be a lot for a child to process. It is common for children to experience sensory meltdowns when trying to process something new and unfamiliar.
Your child is having a hard time learning how to kick the ball and keeps trying to use their hands. The coach and the other players remind your child that they can’t use their hands but it’s hard for your child to remember and they keep making mistakes. Your child feels like everyone is yelling at them, while the sun is beating down on them, there are children running around, and parents are cheering.
Your child runs off the field in the middle of the game, throws the ball, and starts crying.
They are feeling:
You can guide your child off to the side of the field away from the other kids and parents and offer them some water under the shade. Your goal here is to take away some of the things that are overwhelming your child. Separate them from the noise, the people, give them relief from the sun so they can have a break from all the stimuli.
Give them some space and let them work through the backlog of things they’re trying to process. Sometimes, a moment away from a stressful scenario can help your child to calm down on their own.
In this case, it might not be helpful to talk them through the situation or explain the rules. You’ll likely just add in more noise your child will have to sort through. Once they are feeling nice and calm, you can talk through what happened and what to do in the future.
Respond to Their Meltdown Calmly
Do not raise your voice to meet your child’s or yell back at them. Remember, the meltdown is beyond their control.
The meltdown started because they were experiencing too much stimuli:
Your child is not trying to misbehave. They are just unable to process everything they are taking in.
Adding in more noise won’t help. Model the type of behavior you want to see in your child and show them that you can work through the event calmly.
Let’s say it’s Christmas Eve. You had a big family dinner at your house.
Your child experienced a lot in one day:
- Had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends over to celebrate
- Interacted with relatives
- Played in large groups all day
- Listened to music
- Tried new food
Your child is excited for Christmas morning the next day and becomes overwhelmed by all of the people around them. He stops responding to conversation and covers his ears and start yelling and singing to drown out the noise. Next, he runs up to their room ignoring the guests, crying and yelling.
When you go to check on him, he is hiding under the covers and won’t come out or respond to you.
Tell your child it’s ok if they need some space. You can turn off the light for them and give them a break. In this example, your child is looking for a sensory retreat. He is trying to tell you that he needs a break, but he doesn’t know how to articulate it.
Sit with him calmly for a few minutes or let him be alone for a few minutes and check on him later. This might be all your child needs to process their thoughts and feelings and rejoin the group.
Do not yell at your child or force them to go downstairs. Your child’s fight or flight response likely kicked in and they weren’t intentionally being rude or disobedient. Your child is letting you know the environment was too much for them and they need some peace and quiet.
When they have feeling calm, you can talk through what to do in those situations including the words they might use next time. For example, “Mum, I need a bit of a break” and going to their room for 5-10 minutes until they feel better again.
Acknowledge Their Stress and Their Needs
Let them know that you understand they are distressed but do not give in to their meltdown. This might cause your child to learn that a meltdown is a way for them to get what they want. Your job is to see them through the meltdown and help them get out the other side.
Let’s say your child is at a birthday party.
- The music is loud
- There are a bunch of children running and laughing
- There are presents and snacks
- New activities to try
Your child is playing ball with several other children and they all start yelling for them to pass the ball. Everyone is yelling at them, they are confused, overwhelmed and they don’t know what to do. Your child begins yelling and crying in the middle of a game.
Most of the time, your child will stop crying after a few minutes and go back to playing. However, you notice your child does not stop crying and withdraws from the game.
You can step in and separate your child from the group to give them some space. Speak to them calmly and acknowledge that must have been a stressful situation. Let them know it was confusing and overwhelming. Share with them a time when you felt confused or overwhelmed at help them understand they will feel better soon.
It’s helpful to take your child out of the moment and distance them from the things causing their stress if they are open to talking. It’s also important for them to understand that they aren’t wrong for being overwhelmed. Sometimes that can happen, and you can learn to push through it.
Don’t Give in If They Are Breaking the Rules
With a sensory meltdown, your child is not misbehaving on purpose. However, just because they are overwhelmed and stressed does not mean they can break the rules. You should not give into your child’s meltdowns if they are breaking rules and misbehaving.
They need to know that behavior is wrong and that they need to correct it even if they can’t get their way. You can help them through it, but you don’t need to give into demands because your child is overwhelmed. Help them to process everything going on and give them a calm explanation of the rules when they are ready.
Let’s say you’re eating dinner as a family and your child refuses to finish their dinner and demands dessert. Your child already knows if they finish their dinner, they can have a scoop of ice cream.
The TV is on in the background and the news is playing. The people on the TV are having a heated debate. Your spouse drops their drink all over the table, their food, and their clothes and is stressed and upset trying to clean it all up. Your phone keeps ringing and their siblings are talking loudly about their day at school.
When you tell your child no, they need to finish their dinner, they begin to cry and scream and refuse to eat. Your child is breaking the dinner rules, but they are also stressed out by all the sounds and activity around them. Help them work through the stress happening around them without giving in to their demands.
Tell your child no and explain that they know the rules. They have to finish their dinner and then they can have dessert. Turn off the TV, ask the other children to slow down and put your phone on silent. You won’t always be able to remove all of the stress but try to remove the stimuli you can. Continue to explain the rules to your child as they calm down.
It can be tempting to give your child what they want when they make demands. It can be overwhelming for parents too if children are:
- Not following the rules
- Making dinner time tough
However, by sticking to the rules you are giving your child practice for the future. We know that as adults we can’t always make demands and get our way. It’s important to show your child that the world won’t always meet their demands and they need to find a way to cope when things don’t go their way.
Give Them Time
Your child is experiencing too much at once and needs time to catch up and process everything they are taking in. Don’t force them to come out of their meltdown before their body and their mind are ready.
Let’s say you’re heading out for a family road trip. It’s a busy morning packing, getting the family ready to go, preparing supplies for the trip. Your child is not excited about going on a road trip and they mentioned they would rather stay at home. Your child begins throwing a tantrum when you ask if they are ready to leave.
That tantrum triggers a sensory overload. Your child is already upset, and the family is running around, all while they are trying to process that they will be in new surroundings and away from home.
Your child is crying and refusing to get up and get in the car. You can’t make the family late, so you eventually get your child to calm down and reluctantly get in the car.
- Does not want to participate in the conversation
- Is complaining that the music is too loud
- Won’t interact with their siblings
Give your child some time to settle down and get acclimated to the plan for the trip. They might be overwhelmed with changes and it can feel like a lot to process. They might not have the ability to act the way you want them to right now.
It might be hard for them to act like they are having fun with the family when there is so much going on in their mind and around them.
Give your child:
- A pair of earplugs
- A blanket
- A book
Let them sit in the back row of the car or maybe upfront away from the other children.
Give them time to retreat into their book, find comfort under their blanket, or enjoy the quiet while they process everything around them. Hopefully, your child’s sensory meltdown will pass, and they can join back in with the family soon.
Understanding Their Triggers Going Forward
Develop a strategy to understand what types of things trigger your child’s sensory meltdowns. When possible, eliminate or reduce their exposure to these types of events. When it’s not possible or not appropriate to remove your child from these situations, understand what’s triggering their sensory overload.
Once you understand what is triggering them, you can try to be prepared if your child experienced a sensory meltdown in the future and give them some skills and tools to work through it.
- Look for patterns. Does your child have a sensory meltdown before the first day of school every year?
- Ask your child how they feel and what is bothering them. They might not always know. Sometimes, they will be able to tell you what the source of their sensory overload is.
- Are they sensitive to light, sound, people, food, smells?
- Keep a log when your child does have a sensory meltdown. Include notes about their behavior, their surroundings and the strategies you tried to calm them down. Track if those strategies were successful to get a better sense of what works for your child.
- Help your child prepare before an event if you think they might be triggered. Help them to understand what type of environment they can expect. You don’t need to assume they are going to be triggered. They might pick up on that and feel distressed. Help them to understand what they are getting into so they can mentally prepare.
Quick Tips to Be Prepared for a Sensory Meltdown
- Track the solutions that have worked in the past. For instance, does your child respond well when given a book or a blanket? If so, try to keep them on hand.
- Create a retreat for them at home. It could be their bed, a fort, a quiet corner in the backyard. Give them a special place they can go that is quiet and calm.
- Work through the meltdown with your child even if it is tough. It can be tempting to give in to demands. Stick to the rules but be calm and supportive.
Some other tools to calm a sensory meltdown are:
- Oral sensory tools
- Headphones or earplugs
- Blankets, jackets, or hoods – something cozy they can use as a shield
- Hobbies like coloring
Once your child has calmed down, you might need to be flexible with your plan. Is there anything you can change today to avoid encountering that same trigger again? Be careful to keep the environment calm post-meltdown.
- Leave the place that triggered your child (if possible)
- Find a new way to approach that situation in the future
- Talk with your child about what happened
- Don’t scold them (they probably already feel bad)
- Ask them questions about what happened to help them understand
While you can’t remove all stressors and triggers in your child’s life, you can give them tools to help cope with sensory overload in the moment and teach them how to prepare for situations in the future. Keep in mind, the issue if your child’s reaction to their environment, not their behaviour. Do the work to understand the environment and your child and you should have some helpful strategies going forward.