Meltdowns, tantrums, whatever you call them, they are one of the most challenging parts of parenting any child, not just a child with special needs. The difference in kids with special needs is that they likely have meltdowns more often and they are likely more intense and last longer than those of their neurotypical peers. Parents often ask questions about meltdowns wanting to better understand what is happening for their child in that moment and also how they should respond.
I often start by using Dr. Dan Siegel’s language from The Whole Brain Child of “upstairs brain” and “downstairs brain”. I like this analogy because it is easy to understand and yet rooted in neuropsychology. The upstairs brain is the part of the brain that is responsible for ‘high order’ tasks such as planning, organizing, empathy, morality, and isn’t fully formed until a person is in their 20’s. The downstairs brain is well developed at birth and is responsible for basic needs like “fight or flight” and basic emotions like fear and anger. So let’s say your child is 8. His brain is like a two story home being built. The downstairs is finished and livable and then there are stairs going up but as we go up, we see that the upstairs is only finished up to the drywall – certainly not livable without lots of support like people bringing furniture to share or working hard to get plumbing up there. And this is an 8 year old on an average day! They need support in using that upstairs brain because it’s still developing.
Then throw in a stressor like overstimulation from the environment or not having had enough sleep. These stressors are like putting a baby gate on the stairs to the upstairs brain, event though unfinished, is now completely inaccessible. Our child is trapped downstairs! When this happens, we may get stuck in our downstairs brain too because our child’s meltdown can be a stressor for US!
Here are 3 steps that will help keep everyone safe and help to remove the baby gate blocking each of our upstairs brains.
- Say nothing. This may feel counter-intuitive, however if the upstairs brain is in charge of language and it’s not accessible, language is of no use and is simply additional stimuli.
- Reduce stimuli. Speaking of additional stimuli, that can be like adding a bike and a box of crayons and a ball on the steps that are already blocked with the baby gate. It makes it even more difficult to access that upstairs brain, for your child and for you. Attempt to get somewhere quiet and maybe even dimly lit. Some children respond well to repetitive movement or stimuli as a way to help soothe. More about that in another blog post.
- Express love. As your child calms and as you calm, we may be filled with guilt, embarrassment, sadness. All of this is normal. And it’s important for your child to feel loved. Love equals safety. During meltdowns, a child is out of control and unsafe. This is part of the mental health condition; it is not intentional. You and your child have just bumped your heads up against the disorder. You and your child are both likely exhausted. You can express love using hugs, verbal language, a secret sign, whatever feels most authentic for you and your child. Often times our children calm and we’re still having emotional reactions to what just happened. In those moments sometimes a secret sign can be helpful as it’s giving your child what they need, reassurance, while also giving you space to keep working on removing the clutter from the stairs between your brains and not requiring language just yet.
Meltdowns are tough. Knowing what is happening for your child and how to best respond can help us feel more prepared to manage these events and to be kind to ourselves afterwards