How do I deal with child anxiety meltdowns?

episode 68

I feel like this is a tricky question to answer because the person who posted this to my site didn’t add any details. I don’t know how old their child is, I don’t know what the meltdowns look like. I don’t know what they’ve already tried or what makes them think they are related specifically to anxiety. At first I was going to skip answering it but then I thought it was an opportunity to do a deep dive into tantrums, meltdowns and anxiety.

I’ve mentioned before that the families who reach out to me are often coming because their child’s behavior is getting too difficult and often that behavior includes tantrums or meltdowns.

A meltdown is when a person — not just a child — becomes overwhelmed emotionally and just kind of short circuits. A meltdown is different than a tantrum although they can be difficult to tell apart because they can look the same. The difference has to do with capability and development and expectations.

Generally speaking a tantrum has some will to it. Which is to say, there is some measure of control there. There’s some decision-making. A child who says, “I’m going to break this toy” and then breaks it is having a tantrum. 

A meltdown is a coming apart at the seams. Some meltdowns are the child version of a panic attack. There is no control there. There is no decision-making. 

Some people differentiate by saying a tantrum has a purpose. Like you ask a child to clean their room and they start screaming that they won’t. But this can be confusing because a meltdown can be a fight or flight response so it looks like there’s a purpose. Like you tell a child it’s time to wash their hair and they run screaming. Is that a tantrum? A child trying to control the outcome? Or a meltdown? A child trying to get away from something that scares them? 

If you’re not sure, think about how present your child seems to be. Are they watching you for a reaction? That’s a tantrum. Do they stop when you give in? Probably a tantrum. Are they trying to bargain with you? Pleading their case? Tantrum. 

A child who can’t seem to hear you or recognize their surroundings is likely in sensory overload and that’s a meltdown. If they are unable to respond to you, if you giving in doesn’t stop things, that’s probably a meltdown.

You can see both in anxious kids. And in both cases when the child has come apart, it’s time to step away, lower your expectations, understand that it’s time to stop and reassess.

You may not always know the difference but they may not matter. Because from an anxiety standpoint, we’re going to pull back and try to assess where the child is getting pushed past their limits. What are their triggers? When do things fall apart?

I always recommend that families make a map, a detailed narrative of what happened that includes what else was going on that day. I like them to pick a particular incident. So instead of saying, “He always falls apart when it’s time for school” I think it’s much more helpful and illuminating to say, “Let’s look at last Tuesday when he fell apart.” And then write everything down. What happened before, what happened during. What was the weather like, what else was going on, who else was involved and what was their mood like. Because tantrum or meltdown, we know what we’ve been doing isn’t working but now we need to figure out what to change.

One thing that I think we need to remember is that when a child falls apart it’s their way of saying, “I can’t do this.” We need to have the perspective that they can do this, whatever this is, with the right supports, which means gathering information.

Taking that detailed report is the first step to figuring this out. This will also help you figure out if you’re dealing with a meltdown or a tantrum. Looking at the details, considering if your child is able to be responsive even if that’s yelling back or arguing, considering how they came out of it — did they stop when you gave in? Because that’s a sure sign of a tantrum or did they just wear themselves out? Because that’s another indicator of a meltdown. 

The best reason to know the difference is that you can be a bit more firm with a tantrum and need to be cautious about unintentionally doing things that reward or encourage tantrum behavior and with meltdowns we need to figure out where to give our child a break. Where is it that they’re getting overloaded.

Now I’m not one for big punishments for tantrums because I think that creates more antagonism between parent and child but I do think we need to be careful not to inadvertently reward tantrum behavior. I don’t like the word manipulative because I think that kids look to us to teach them how to behave and if a tantrum works then of course they’re going to keep doing it. They’ve learned that tantruming is effective. Smart kid, right? And punishing them for being observant and figuring out how to get their way seems inappropriate. Instead we can revisit the lesson.

I’ll give an example. I worked with a family who had an anxious child who often tantrumed before school. The family was mistaking these for meltdowns and were very much stuck in the parenting pitfalls of trying to manage their child’s crying and screaming. What would end up happening is the family would be late to school and a parent would walk the child in and hand them off directly to their teacher. This was an elementary aged child, a child who developmentally was capable of walking into the school themselves but preferred not to.

Now the child’s anxiety was very real. They had some separation anxiety and hated to leave their parent. It was getting harder and harder for the parent to leave them and the child’s tantrums far from being manipulative were what the child thought they needed to do in order to get their parent to walk them into school. Everybody was trapped. 

For this particular child the family had to get some help. It wasn’t like they could just say to them, “Hey, quit crying and screaming. Quit making a fuss and go to school” because they whole family was trapped in this pattern including the child. The child really thought they had to cry and scream so they could avoid going into the classroom alone.

So the family had someone else come help them. They had a grandparent who was available and who was willing to take a kicking, screaming child into their car to school. 

It was a lot more complicated than this. There was preparation around it, there was clear discussion and expectations, there was a plan, and there was a plan both for the challenges — like what to do, how to pick up a kicking child, how to handle it if they tried to get out of the car, who’d be at the school to help, how the parent would take care of themselves because they were in for rough morning, and how they were going to celebrate the child’s success.

And you know, in this case, the child didn’t tantrum as much as they thought. They were prepared for a worst case scenario and it actually went really well. Because sometimes that happens.

And other times, the child ramps up. If we’ve unintentionally taught them that screaming will work, they may scream louder thinking we didn’t hear them the first time. Thinking, “Ok, I guess I have to amp up.”

That’s another way you can know it’s a tantrum and not a meltdown; they can make those adjustments. 

In the case of an anxiety meltdown, if looking over the detailed narrative makes it clear that this is a child who is simply overwhelmed, we might start by removing those overwhelming elements. I like to recommend that even with tantrums though because the more comfortable we can be heading in, the easier it is to handle any anxiety.

And sample of this might be making sure people get to wear their comfiest squishiest pants on the day we’re going to do something hard. Or making sure people have a good breakfast before they try going to school alone. Maybe keeping the lights low, too, that kind of thing.

Basically meltdown or tantrum, it is our child communicating with us and it’s up to us to figure out what they’re saying and how we want to respond. But it doesn’t mean just give in and agree with them that they are incapable. Even with meltdowns, where there is very real overwhelm and not just the child’s perception of overwhelm, with help and appropriate intervention, we can help them do the hard thing.

And if you’d like help with that, please reach out~

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94 to 99% of families with anxious kids are stuck in patterns that make their child's anxiety worse
Does Child Anxiety Have Your Family Trapped?