If you’ve been there, you know the feeling all too well. You feel it coming the moment you enter the crowded store. Your child looks irritated by the noise right away. And sure enough, it doesn’t take long for that initial agitation to turns into a full meltdown.
You barely notice your burning cheeks as you abandon your cart and rush out of the store with your screaming child. And the big emotions don’t stop when you’re safely back in the car.
You know better than to try to talk. So you give your child some quiet time in the car, and your shoulders begin to relax as you hear the meltdown winding down. Now, both of you are emotionally spent. And you keep wondering… will it ever get easier? Of all the challenges of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder (SPD), sensory meltdowns rank pretty high on the stress index.
It can be heartbreaking to watch your child feel such intense emotions. Meanwhile, it’s stressful as the caregiver to even know what to do. It’s no wonder the challenges of meltdowns contribute to caregiver stress and burnout.
However, the right knowledge in the hands of parents and caregivers can make a huge difference. Keep reading to understand what a meltdown is, some strategies for coping with meltdowns, and how to reduce some meltdown triggers.
What is a Sensory Meltdown?
A sensory meltdown is when the sensory system get’s overloaded and triggers a fight or flight response leading to big emotional outbursts or challenging behaviors.
Pretty much everyone has moments where they get overwhelmed by sensory input. Think about feeling exhausted after a day in a loud, crowded, hot mall. Or even turning down the radio when trying to focus while driving. The difference for those without sensory processing disorder is that the sensory system is able to adjust before a system meltdown happens.
However, those with SPD have sensory systems that work differently. Sensations are stronger and the nervous system has a lower threshold for tolerance. Those with SPD might perceive some normal sensations like light, touch, or sound more intensely. This heightened intensity of sensory information contributes to the sensory system getting overwhelmed more easily and reaching the point of overload and meltdowns.
A meltdown can look like:
- Loud yelling
- Aggressive behaviors towards others
- Running away
- Putting hands over ears
- Uncontrolled crying or screaming
- Refusing to do something
- Repetitive behaviors
The hallmark of a sensory meltdown is the behaviors that are beyond the child’s control. The child in the middle of a meltdown can’t do anything except be in the meltdown. You can’t reason with them, and you can’t make it just stop. This can get in the way of schoolwork, family outings, and playing with friends.
Sensory meltdowns are not just seen in those with sensory processing disorder. They are also seen with other diagnoses with sensory components like AHDH, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. And it’s not just kids, teens and adults can also experience sensory meltdowns.
Common Triggers for Sensory Meltdowns
Sometimes a meltdown is the result of a specific, intense sensory experience. Other times, it’s a slow accumulation of different experiences. Like slowly filling a cup until one last thing causes it to overflow.
Take school for instance, maybe a child tolerated a shirt that felt scratchy, and then the noisy hallway, and then a strange blinky light in art class. Finally, at the end of the day, a peer accidentally brushes their arm and boom – they lose it. It’s the summation of all the sensory annoyances during the day that lead to the big meltdown at the end.
Some common triggers for meltdowns include:
- Environments with a lot of activity
- New places
- Hunger or Thirst
- Bright lights
- Unexpected sensory experience
- Uncomfortable clothing
- Light touch
A Sensory Meltdown Isn’t a Temper Tantrum
All too frequently, sensory meltdowns are seen as behavior problems and equated to a temper tantrum or other behavior response. However, it is important to really consider what might be the true root of behavioral challenges or temper tantrums.
Here’s the difference: A temper tantrum is a behavior related to lack of communication or wanting something like attention or a specific outcome. The hallmark of a temper tantrum is that it stops when the child gets what they want.
This is very different from a sensory meltdown. Remember, a sensory meltdown is the product of an overwhelmed sensory system. This is a child who gets agitated during a shopping trip because of the noise, lights, and all the different things to see.
As the nervous system gets overloaded, rational thought is gone. When the sensory system reaches that tipping point into overwhelm, no amount of reasoning or compliance by the child is going to prevent the meltdown.
Unlike with a temper tantrum, there is no easy off switch with a sensory meltdown. Instead, the goal while in the middle of a sensory meltdown, is to ride it out until the nervous system comes back to a more balanced state. The key here is to recognize a child isn’t being manipulative, attention-seeking, or purposely disruptive. It’s also not the fault of a parent or caregiver.
Meltdowns Can’t Always Be Prevented
Meltdowns are going to happen because there is a biological difference in the sensory system. It is just more sensitive.
No matter how many variables you control, there are always going to be sensory experiences, good days and bad days, and unexpected triggers.
Instead of focusing all your energy on avoiding meltdowns, it is more useful to focus on how to best manage a meltdown. This takes the emotional load off being responsible for prevention which isn’t always possible.
Some ideas for supporting someone in the middle of a sensory meltdown:
- Go to a quiet or dark place to reduce sensory input
- Be emotionally supportive but limit talking or light touch
- Validate feelings and experiences
- Prevent injury but don’t prevent the meltdown
Essentially, your role is to be there for your child and remain calm until the wave of emotions passes.
Staying calm during a meltdown is not easy. So don’t undervalue your role here. Meltdowns can be big emotional experiences for both caregivers and children with SPD.So don’t forget about taking care of yourself emotionally and physically.
This might mean:
- Taking breaks as needed, tag-team with another caregiver
- Reminding yourself the meltdown is because of sensory overwhelm and not disobedience
- Prioritizing self-care
- Proactively creating a network of social support
- Giving yourself space to decompress after a challenging meltdown
Your calm reassurance is the biggest gift you can give your child.
Some Strategies to Help Reduce Meltdowns
While not all meltdowns can be prevented, there are sensory strategies to reduce the likelihood of reaching sensory overload leading to a meltdown.
- Prepare for new or sensory-rich environments ahead of time — talk about what to expect and get ready with go-to strategies like ear plugs or sunglasses.
- Provide sensory breaks — incorporate time in the day to do preferred sensory activities or go to a calm space.
- Complete a customized sensory diet — physical activities to burn off energy or use deep pressure for calm.
- Reduce sensory irritations when possible — eliminate blinking lights, lower the lights, wear earplugs, or comfortable clothing.
- Learn self-regulation strategies — learn to identify early signs of overwhelm and use personalized strategies for responding before full overload hits.
The Heros Are Parents Who Stay Calm
No kid should be labeled as difficult just because their sensory system responds to sight, sound, or touch differently. That’s just part of how they experience the world.
Keep reminding yourself: You are doing a great job. Your child is doing their best – sensory meltdowns and all. You might face extra inconveniences, challenges, or embarrassments as a parent. But when you sit on that store floor calmly with your screaming child, you are a parent superhero who is meeting your child’s unique SPD needs.
Above all else, you know what’s best for your child. You know them. You know their unique challenges and how much they really want to enjoy life without sensory overload getting in the way.