butterfly minds

Tantrums and meltdowns

Posted on: July 30, 2013

Tantrums and meltdowns

I was going to do some research on tantrums and meltdowns and put together a post but I came across @OAGconsultants on twitter and they have very kindly allowed me to share their post on the subject. Its a very insightful post , exactly what i was looking for ! Their website is oagconsultants .co.uk its a fantastic website with lots of information on autism,
this is the post titled tantrums and meltdowns :
I have been asked a lot recently about the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum, so this week’s blog is all about these two seemingly similar phenomenons and how to spot the differences.

As any parent, and some nonparents, will tell you the terrible twos are not an old wives tail. At around the age of two children’s development is very rapid. Children are developing into individuals they are developing an identity of their own and trying hard to understand the world they live in. They also get frustrated when they don’t understand something new or can’t express themselves or make their needs, wants and desires understood this confusion, frustration and lack of understanding results in a temper tantrum. The child soon learns that if he/she shouts loud enough or screams long enough then adults will give them what they want, or they will learn that shouting and screaming are not successful ways of achieving their goals and find an alternative.

Tantrums are led by a child wanting to be in control of a situation, they are a voluntary action/behaviour that can be controlled. Tantrums are a child’s way of asserting themselves and making sure the adults in toe room respond they way they want them to. They may seem to be very long outburst of noise, but in fact they usually only last a short time and the intensity of a tantrum is usually not as severe as you think at the time. Although we call this stage of development the terrible twos, referring to the child’s age, it is really a stage relating to the child’s developmental age and can be any where from around 18 months to 4 years old. Every parent will have a method of dealing with tantrums and this blog is not intended as a parenting manual to give advice. Some parents advocate ignoring the tantrum, others will give in to the tantrum. What ever approach you choose as soon as the child understands that they are winning the situation they will stop or if they see that this strategy is not going any where they will stop. All children have the possibility of going through this stage of development and all children will develop their understanding to some degree and understand that tantrums don’t always get the desired result and so they will find another way. There are of course some exceptions but this is dependent on levels of learning ability.

On the other hand a meltdown/shutdown is a basic brain function with no voluntary control aspect. It’s the flight, fight or freeze mechanism associated with limbic brain function. Some children/people will experience a shutdown (freeze reaction) their brain will inform the body to freeze in the threat of perceived danger (sensory overload or input overload) During the stage the individual may fall to ground and stay there until the overload is reduced. Do not talk to the individual as this will increase the load, remove sensory stimuli to reduce the load. The individual will slowly return to their normal state in time. As they begin to ‘wake up’ you will notice small changes to their body movements that are no deliberate and have purpose. As they become more responsive you can go through a known routine of questions to help the brain to become more focused. This may be about identifying individual senses; what can you smell, what can you see, what can you feel, what can you taste, what can you hear? Wait for a given response as this will demonstrate that the individual’s brain function is returning. You may have a set of questions relating to the individual; what is your name, how old are you, where do you live? The questions are not important the responses are, but try to use the same questions each time so the individual is aware of the process and the brain does not have to work too hard to find the answers.

A meltdown is also a non controllable reaction to something in the environment. But this time the limbic brain system is reacting with fight and flight. You may not be able to identify the cause of a meltdown as it could be a sensory issue that a child cannot explain, or it could be a number of factors that all contribute to the reaction. A meltdown is usually a sudden and violent reaction that may include screaming, shouting, and violence towards self or others. In some case the individual will run, they will not have a destination is mind as they are reacting by getting away from the overload. So be very vigilant as to the dangers they may encounter and try to pre-empt any flight risk; lock doors and windows if you are inside, outside the dangers are greater and the risks are higher so you need to be more aware of any triggers and try to avoid them as much as possible; use ear defenders, or sunglasses to reduce auditory and visual input.

It is difficult to spot a sensory overload meltdown but the individual may cover their ears or shut their eyes, cover their face. If this is the case then changing the environment will help; turn lights off, stop as many noises as possible, remove the child to a different area (this may not be possible) or use weighted garments/blankets etc. Once some of the sensory input is removed the brain will be able to return to its normal level of functioning and the child will be able to take control again. Some children like to be held during a meltdown so they feel secure, other will find the sensation of being touched very difficult and could increase the intensity of the meltdown, so be aware of the individual and their needs.

Another meltdown scenario is the change meltdown. As any ASD parent or carer will tell you routines and consistency are very important to an individual with ASD. If things change unexpectedly then the confusion this creates can be the cause of a meltdown. This meltdown is usually misunderstood and thought of as a tantrum. The individual wants to be in control of the situation and can control their behaviour. In fact this is not the case the change in the situation has caused a great deal of confusion for the individual and they need normality to be resumed before they can move on and accept the change. Try to return to the usual routine, to aid the individual to return to a normal brain function, then discuss the change so they are aware of it and why, reassure them that the normal routine will be resumed as soon as possible; use a picture timetable or simple language to show this.

As with the shutdown, the brain will return to its normal level of functioning in time and as this happens the individual’s reactions will be less intense and you can go through the questions sequence mentioned above.

This is a very brief look at the differences and until you have seen both tantrums and meltdowns it is difficult to spot the difference, but usually intensity and understanding are the keys to differentiate. If you would like more information then contact me.

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