Story time…about meltdowns

You are at the grocery store with your 4-year-old daughter, Iris. She is excited to go out, to visit a grocery store and sit in the grocery cart. You get Iris strapped into the cart, pull out your list, then start shopping. After a microsecond of sitting still, she starts squirming in her seat, fidgeting with the seat buckle, excitedly points around the store, yelling in excitement at the cakes in the bakery display. Iris’s whole body and mind are excited about everything. You think: At least she is smiling. 

Child sitting in a grocery cart at the store. Meltdown has yet to happen.

Somewhere between the produce section and the deli you notice the squirming and fidgeting has been productive. Iris slips out of the strap holding them in the cart.  Now you have a happy, excited child who is in the grocery cart. You start to frantically move food around the cart to stop items from being trampled on. You calmly ask Iris to sit down, which is ignored. She then falls out of the cart somehow not injuring herself. She is too excited to feel injured? Your stress levels start to spike because Iris isn’t hearing you. Eventually you pick Iris up and they hang off the side cart. As they swing one arm around in the air, you attempt to continue pushing the cart and shop. 

By the next aisle Iris can’t help herself. She lets go of the cart and runs away faster than you can. She is thrilled, laughing in excitement with her freedom. A whole grocery store to run in! You yell out to her to stop, but it’s like Iris doesn’t hear you. You feel panicked as her yells and squeals are the only thing that you can hear she runs out of sight.  Well at least you can hear where your child is? Abandoning your grocery cart, you frantically follow the sounds of happiness coming from your kid. A random stranger points you in the right direction.  Your feel exhausted and defeated.

Many aisles over, you finally catch up with your loud, fast, wild child. You are sweating and stressed.  You tell Iris it’s time to stop and scoop them up into your arms. Their laughter turns to immediate screams, writhing, kicking and crying. She is making the biggest scene. You have been here before. She always gets this excited and silly when you go out to large, busy environments. 

Stares, judgment, and advice from strangers come your way. You try calming your child down with rocking, deep pressure and calming words, but nothing works. After 10 minutes, you give up on groceries and head back to the car. Carrying Iris back to the car and getting her back in the car seat is a full body workout

So what is happening here?

We’ve all experienced that feeling of losing control of our behavior at some point. Children are no exception. In fact, children can have more difficulty managing their emotions and need more support from a caregiver to calm. However, having predictable, intense, emotional outbursts that are inconsolable from a caregiver is concerning. Especially after the toddler phase.

This story talks about a 4-year-old who is overwhelmed by the grocery store environment. To most people, going to the grocery store is a regular weekly errand. No big deal. For some people, a grocery store is an overstimulating sensory experience. It is a big, busy space with bright lights, news sounds and smells.  The shopping trip started out as exciting but quickly becomes overstimulating. Iris cannot maintain control of her behaviour. She needs support from a parent to help her regulate back into a calm state.  

When the exciting freedom that Iris experiences running around the store is stopped, she doesn’t understand what’s going on and get upset. Just like with her overexcitement, she becomes overwhelmed with crying and screaming. Again, Iris cannot calm down. 

Children with neurodevelopmental disorders can have difficulties managing sensory overload in certain environments.  Young children may not have insight into why they feel overwhelmed or do not have the language to explain what’s happening. As a result, these kids can have meltdowns, which are intense, prolonged emotional outbursts (Child Mind Institute, 2023). The child will only calm down once they wear themselves out or a parent is able to calm the child down (by removing them from the environment or supporting the child’s emotional regulation). 

What to do during a meltdown?

  • Make sure you and the child are safe. Safety is first, then manage the behaviour.
  • Allow your child to experience their emotions in a calm, safe space. 
  • Expect your child to have difficulty getting control of their emotions
  • Do your best to stay calm, on the outside. Freaking out inside your head is normal and will happen. Listening to a child meltdown whether in private or in public is very stressful.
  • Try to reduce the trigger overwhelming your child, if you know what it is

Common strategies that help:

  • If you know strategies that you know help your child calm, use them.
  • Every child is different, but here are a few more common strategies: 
    • Hugs with firm pressure
    • Rocking/swaying
    • Sing calming songs
    • Repeat short phrases with compassion to help label your child’s emotions e.g. “You feel upset. You feel sad. Crying is ok.”
    • Provide reassurance without dismissing their emotions e.g. “This is hard for you.”
    • Help them take deep breaths: Have them inhale by pretending to smell a flower. Have them exhale but pretending to blow out a candle.
    • Note: Some kids need multiple strategies at the same time e.g. Hug and swaying and singing

What NOT to do during a meltdown?

  • Do not expect your child to be able to talk to you or communicate
    • Do not reprimand your child. They are brain and body is feeling overwhelmed with emotions that they may not fully understand. 
    • Do not avoid environments that are triggers for meltdowns
    • Easier said than done but try not worry about what other people think! I manage judging stares and comments by reminding myself that many people do not know what you are dealing with as a parent.  

Can you prevent meltdowns?

  • No! Not all of them. Some kids are more prone to meltdowns
    • Don’t think of meltdowns as a failure. Instead meltdowns are a learning opportunity for you and the child. It may not be a learning experience in the moment, but use it to help you figure out how to make this a better experience next time. 

What to do after a meltdown?

Self-care for parents or caregivers: Witnessing a meltdown as a very stressful, potentially traumatizing experience. Especially when it happens multiple times a day or a week. I can remember many of my child’s meltdowns in graphic detail, years later. Trying to have a period of calm after a meltdown is helpful for parents and children. It is not always possible, but try.

The next step is learning from the experience. Think about what were the triggers. It may not be obvious in the moment, so write a list of meltdowns with dates, location, and general activity to refer to over time. For example, meltdowns at the end of school transition is a common trend.

What triggers are there? 

  • Physiological: Lack of sleep, lack of food/water,
  • Sensory overstimulation: too many sights, lights, smells, etc.,
  • Other issues: transitioning between activities, anxiety. 

Follow up with your child. Talking to your child after calming down can help them build insight into their behaviors. Some children may feel embarrassed by their behavior after the fact. Reassure them that it is not their fault but they are learning to manage their emotions.

Over time once you identify triggers, then you can start figuring out ways to navigate a simple grocery store trip. 

  • Busy environment: Go at store opening when there are fewer people
    • Too loud: Try noise cancelling headphones or ear buds
    • Practice being in a big space: 
      • Try going to smaller store.
      • Practice very short brief trips to start. Only go to one section of a store for 5-10 minutes, then leave before the child get overstimulated. 
      • Take a break from bringing your child to the grocery store. Sometimes it’s necessary to get food by yourself in a more efficient way. 
    • Maybe the child needs some time at the park outside with lots of physical activity before they will sit in a grocery cart
    • Give them a snack and/or a drink.
    • Teach your child calming strategies e.g. ‘sniff the flower’ and ‘blow out the candle’ as simple breathing exercise

Wait, aren’t meltdowns just tantrums?

Some parents have not had reactive children who are easily overwhelmed and dysregulated in different environments. They don’t realize that a meltdown is different than a tantrum Child Mind Institute (2023) says that tantrums and meltdowns are not terms used clinically. The site goes one to say that a tantrum is a common behavior when a child is upset but the child stays in control. They can calm down within a few minutes. You can still communicate with the child and figure out why they are upset. Meltdowns are very different as described above. The child becomes emotionally dysregulated. They cannot communicate, calm down or be calmed easily. 

Both meltdowns and tantrums are messy and stressful, but meltdowns are more challenging to resolve. 


Child Mind Institute. 2023. Retreived March 27, 2023

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