Four Strategies for Managing Meltdowns

2/18/2019 By Mariel Spicer, BCBA

We’ve all been there, the dreaded meltdown! Everything is going according to plan, then “BAM” your child is on the floor wailing at the top of their lungs! There’s crying, there’s screaming, there’s aggression and self-injurious behavior. These meltdowns are difficult to watch and difficult to manage. As a parent, you may feel powerless. All you want is to calm your child but that’s often a lot easier said than done. Let’s talk strategy and a few tips and tricks that will assist you in managing your child’s meltdown.

1. There’s a reason behind the meltdown.

It’s important to remember that behavior is not spontaneous, there’s always a reason behind the meltdown. By determining that reason, one can begin to determine how to help their child handle their meltdown. Possible reasons include:

  • Attention Seeking – Your child is engaging in a meltdown to gain attention from you or someone else. “Attention” doesn’t just mean positive attention, like you hugging your child or playing with them; it can also mean “bad” forms of attention. While it might seem strange that a child would engage in a behavior that they know they’ll “get in trouble” for, it can occur simply because some children feel that it’s better to obtain “bad” attention than no attention at all (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007).

  • Sensory stimulation – Sometimes a meltdown just feels good; it provides a sensation that is internally pleasing. For example, a child could have a meltdown and start to bang their head as a way to soothe themselves from some form of pain.

  • Escape – “I don’t want to do it,” so let’s start crying and hitting and MELTDOWN! A meltdown occurs under this function as a means of getting out of some sort of task demand.

  • Access to tangibles – “I want the cars NOW!” A child begins to cry, scream and MELTDOWN, just to gain access to something they want be it an object, an activity, or a favorite snack.

By determining the reason why the child is engaging in the meltdown, one can begin to formulate antecedent (strategies implemented prior to the meltdown) manipulations to help prevent them from occurring!

2. Avoid triggers and Setting Events

One of the first steps to decreasing the likelihood of a meltdown is minimizing triggers and avoiding possible Setting Events. Triggers are things that occur prior to the meltdown and may cause the meltdown. Setting Events are events that may occur that day that will establish the tone for the rest of the day. An example of a Setting Event may be attending a doctor’s appointment or having a bad day at school. Unfortunately, avoiding triggers and Setting Events can often be nearly impossible. In order to help your child cope with these triggers or setting events, you can use the following strategies:

  • Visual or written schedules – Children with autism typically appreciate a routine. In order to promote routine, keep a visual or written schedule for your child, i.e. “First, we put on our pajamas. Next, we walk to the bathroom. Then, we brush our teeth.”

  • Reinforcement for desirable behaviors – Make sure to provide frequent praise and reinforcement when your child is engaging in desirable behaviors. If refusing to brush their teeth is a trigger for your child, when they brush their teeth without a meltdown, be sure to say things like, “You did such a great job brushing your teeth. Now your teeth are clean and happy!”

  • Use behavioral momentum – Your child may be more willing to engage in a difficult task if you first provide them with easy tasks. An example of this is: “First, take off your shoes. Next, take off your socks. Now, let’s brush your teeth.”

  • Offer choices

  • Offer prompts as needed – If you know your child struggles with communication, help them by providing prompts to express their wants and needs. A prompt may be pointing to a picture of a child brushing their teeth or modeling tooth brushing yourself. You may also prompt them through every step of a task if needed.

  • Modify the difficulty of the task – Breaking a task down into very small steps may make it easier for your child. You may point to their toothbrush, then point to the faucet, then point to the toothpaste, etc.

3. Perform consequential interventions

Despite our best efforts, we can’t always prevent meltdowns. In this case, it may be necessary to implement what’s known as consequential interventions. These interventions depend on the cause of the meltdown. Possible consequential interventions include:

  • Extinction – If the meltdown is caused by wanting attention, it’s best to ignore the meltdown if all possible.

  • Use visual or written schedule with “First, Then”

  • Avoid harsh language and reprimanding during the meltdown.

  • Remain calm and keep your face and voice neutral.

  • Use behavioral momentum.

  • Count and mand – With this technique, you count to three and then give your child with a verbal prompt. For example, if they’re having a meltdown and screaming, “Give me the iPad now!” First, you count to three out loud and then, in a calm tone of voice, prompt “iPad, please” and allow them to echo the prompt. Once they echo the prompt appropriately, give them the iPad, but it’s important to never respond to inappropriate requests.

4. Remember: safety first!

During a meltdown, your child’s safety is the most important thing to worry about. Make sure that they’re not at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, remove all possible harmful objects, and if possible, transport them to a neutral and protected environment. If their meltdown is severe enough that they may be at risk of hurting themselves or others, it may be necessary to participate in some form of physical management training. These trainings teach you safe ways to minimize your child’s harmful behavior. Our clinic prefers Safety Care, but there are other options, such as: Crisis Prevention and Intervention (CPI) and Professional Crisis Management (PCM). Contact us at to set up a training session!