How to Help a Child in Meltdown

Last week I did a mini-post on my Facebook page that seems to have been popular – I guess it’s the nearest I’ve ever got to something going viral!

In relation to my usual audience reach, this has way bypassed the usual ratings and has sparked conversations (and heated debates!) with those who wouldn’t usually read the blog.

So I thought it would be important to talk about it a bit further and why it struck so many chords.

I wrote the post, from the perspective of my seven year old daughter and what she normally says, when people stare at her during a meltdown.

These were her words that she always uses and many other parents commented to say it described exactly their own children.

The meltdown happened in a public place, like it does for so many other families, it causes everyone around to stop and watch the action unfold.

Not only is it difficult for the child during a meltdown, but also it can feel traumatising for the adult who is trying to calm the situation down.

I can personally cope with getting emotionally abused by my daughter, I am able to live with being attacked and my property even being damaged, but the moment when people stare and judge it hurts me far deeper.

I do realise that not all those viewers will be making opinions, but in the moment of being under heightened pressure, it’s all I can see.

And sometimes people will stop, rooted to the spot, not always knowing what to do or how they can help. Their intention is there but without having a plan of action, they too, also freeze and continue to watch.

It can feel like a thousand eyes are piercing your skin, sending feelings of pain across your already assaulted senses.

And that’s from the carer’s perspective, I can’t begin to imagine how it feels for the person who is actually locked in overload.

Sometimes, sadly, those looks do unfortunately come with judgements based on bias and from a lack of understanding – as a parent I often feel brandished as ‘the mum.’

Other times, those looks may serve a purpose as a voyeuristic event, particularly when others’ lives are uneventful or mundane.

The excitement to have something to gossip about takes over whilst forgetting that these are real people with real feelings who would prefer to have their privacy and dignity still in tact.

So what would we prefer others to do instead? How can we help someone in meltdown?

In the Facebook post a lovely teaching assistant said that when a child is in meltdown she always tries to get them to a safe place, even if this means getting down to their level and crawling on the floor with them.

Finding what works for each individual is key but in the mean time here are some…

Quick tips that might help in a meltdown

๐ŸŒŸ Try to offer a smile.

๐ŸŒŸ If possible you can clear the space and help to make an exit way for those dealing with the situation.

๐ŸŒŸ If younger children begin to watch, try using a script such as “let’s not watch xxx , he may be feeling a bit upset right now and needs time to recover.”

๐ŸŒŸ Ongoing work will need to be done with peers, friends, family and staff so that they can try to accept what has happened and move on from the situation. It is not easy to deal with and may affect everyone involved. Emotional well-being is also of the utmost importance.

๐ŸŒŸ If the adult dealing with the overload is a parent and has other siblings then you could try to provide the other children with some comfort. Siblings can often be forgotten but may also be struggling emotionally when witnessing a brother or sister in meltdown. It might also be one less thing for that parent to deal with so that they can focus entirely on the child in need.

๐ŸŒŸ It may be a teacher who needs you to take control of other students and move them away or usurp them of their duties until things are calm once again. A collaborative, team approach is essential for the success of helping to restore calm once again.

๐ŸŒŸ You might offer a space for the adult/child that will feel more contained and safe to prevent crowds from gathering.

๐ŸŒŸ If the person in overload shouts, swears, insults or attacks try to not make eye contact or respond back – avoid getting into a battle of confrontation as a way of controlling the situation.

๐ŸŒŸ Try to use a warm, gentle tone of voice and remember to not remind them of what it is they are upset about or to try to reason with them. There is an underlying emotion driving this meltdown, it is there regardless of whether it’s obvious on the outside.

๐ŸŒŸ Do not give them a direct demand e.g to fix the damage they have done or tell them to apologise – this will only incite the incident further.

๐ŸŒŸ Try to offer reassurance, love and compassion – nobody wants to feel judged when they are upset and out of control of their actions.

๐ŸŒŸ Don’t tower above them as this creates even more fear.

๐ŸŒŸ Try to think what might have been at the root of the individual’s upset rather than only focusing on the behaviour.

๐ŸŒŸ Remember, when a child with additional needs is in overload, they are not merely having a ‘tantrum.’

๐ŸŒŸ A meltdown is often a response to a perceived sense of fear or loss of control and is not a reaction that has been chosen.

๐ŸŒŸ The person will not be in full control of their actions and often won’t be able to recall how the event unfolded, even if those behaviours ‘appear’ to be deliberate.

๐ŸŒŸ A meltdown is better understood as a panic attack and something that doesn’t need punishing – instead we need to look at ways to prevent them from happening.

๐ŸŒŸ Confronting someone will only make the situation worse and for the original emotion to become even more heightened.

๐ŸŒŸ Children and adults in meltdown feel enough guilt, shame and embarrassment about their own actions, there is no need to add to this even further.

๐ŸŒŸ Self-esteem could be incredibly low afterwards, so finding ways to remind the individual about all of the positives about them is paramount to the cycle not repeating.

๐ŸŒŸ Embarrassment and shock can set in after a meltdown, particularly when a meltdown has gathered so many onlookers.

๐ŸŒŸ It can lead to further anxiety and fear to avoid repeating the experience.

๐ŸŒŸ If it happens in a school environment, it may lead to school refusal or bouts of trying to abscond, so the pupil will need to be fully supported in their transition returning back to school.

๐ŸŒŸ If the child is reminded about the event it could reoccur, so as good practice, once the situation has been dealt with then we must start a new day afresh.

๐ŸŒŸ Think deeply about what is the right course of action for this individual. Is it imperative that they meet again with staff to face the consequences of their actions? Do they really need further punishments? What reasonable adjustments can be made for those students who struggle with poor emotional regulation and require a different approach to learn how to manage this?

๐ŸŒŸ Look at what caused the behaviour outburst and find ways to support the individual so that their fight/flight or freeze responses significantly reduce over time.

This blogpost has focused on ways to manage or support others when a meltdown has hit crisis point. Often, they can be avoided, if you try to use preventative strategies earlier on.

This will be something I will expand upon in a later post.

Thank you for reading ๐Ÿ˜

I’d love to hear about your experiences and what works for you….

If you have any tips to offer, please do drop in the comments below so we can share strategies and support others ๐Ÿ™Œ

Thank you for reading this post and if you think anyone may benefit from it too, then please do hit one of the sharing icons ๐Ÿ‘


  1. Marina Jones Gannon

    Thank you so much for this. This is my grandson all over heโ€™s a really loving child but when he has these meltdowns thereโ€™s no talking to him. Heโ€™s been like this from about 2 year old and heโ€™s 12 now. Been tested for adhd and everything else but we now think he has pda as everything is fitting into place. Thank you so much. Loving grandma

    1. PDA Parenting

      Hi Marina, I loved reading this post earlier and I hope that your grandson can now start to access the right support. Itโ€™s just so upsetting that we go through years of not knowing and often making life harder. Do keep in touch, Iโ€™d love to know how he gets on moving forwards xx

  2. MuddlingThroughPDA

    This is invaluable advice and brilliantly written, thank you. So many lovely people ask how they can help when a meltdown is in full swing and my brain’s too foggy to articulate what I need them to do. Perhaps we can use your list to develop an easy to remember acronym? ๐Ÿ™‚ x

    1. PDA Parenting

      Ahh thank you and also for sharing on Twitter… yes thatโ€™s a good idea we should!! Although my brain is blocked right now, can you think of any? Xx

  3. Angie

    I do enjoy reading your posts and can really identify with them. I have shared care of my children, Friday to Friday, and, having taken some of your suggestions on board, this week (so far ๐Ÿคž) has been a good week! X

    1. PDA Parenting

      Thatโ€™s great to hear! Itโ€™s just not easy is it, so anything that can help we grab at. Also, things can change direction so quickly, itโ€™s so hard to keep up. I hope it goes well xx

    1. PDA Parenting

      Ahh thank you so much- just seen the shares youโ€™ve done, Iโ€™m so grateful ๐Ÿ’• hope to finally meet soon xx

  4. Faith

    I have often said that my son is trying to parent me. He meltdowns when I say no, telling what needs to be done that he doesnโ€™t want to do, ect. He argues and tries to demand of me what is allowed or not allowed. Reading about PDS makes a lot more sense to me then his ODD / ADHD diagnosis. He has severe anxiety from his biological family. Recently put on anxiety medication. I recently discovered that anxiety is genetic and theirs is severe requiring medication for all family members. He has SPD and recently discovered OCD (repetitive behaviors). Hopefully working through how to help his PDA characteristics, his anxiety meds helping maybe just maybe we can get a clear view of if he has adhd or not. Fyi – prenatal meth is also a huge factor.

    1. PDA Parenting

      Iโ€™ve neglected this blog for the last few weeks but just catching up. Iโ€™ve found your post extremely interesting and I have spoken to many families where they are adopters – I truly think some difficulties are passed on and some will have found it hard to manage their own needs let alone been able to survive (without appropriate support and understanding) so that they can parent the young. So many then self-medicate who have not been understood or have struggled. We can only hope that the issues with anxiety and additional needs get picked up in children earlier so that the cycle is broken. I would definitely use PDA strategies on him via the PDA Society as if he has an ODD diagnosis this may work better (this can often be misdiagnosed). All the best Danielle x

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