Managing Meltdowns

Before reading about managing meltdowns, you may wish to read What is a meltdown?.

First things to remember

  • ​Meltdowns are best understood as a panic attack. This is not a battle to be lost or won, but a crisis to manage.
  • You are the child’s emotional brakes. How you manage the meltdown makes a difference to outcomes.
  • Separate your relationship with the child from the behaviour.
  • Emergency rules apply; ‘Don’t hurt yourself, others or damage property’. Do remember that things broken in a meltdown may be replaced or mended, so prioritise safety.
  • Traditional discipline is largely ineffective for meltdowns, the child is not in a state to learn anything.

Things you can do

  • Be aware of possible triggers and look for signs that anxiety is rising. Prevention is better than cure.
  • Keep calm and level at all times. Shouting or getting angry will not help either of you, be careful about your facial expressions and body language. Keep as neutral as possible, be non-confrontational.
  • Reduce stimuli that may add to a child’s sense of being overwhelmed. Eg turn down the volume of a TV or radio, ask other people to keep quiet and not intervene.
  • Keep communication to a minimum. Instructions should be short and simple.
  • It is better to steer a child towards a positive behaviour, rather than give an order to stop a negative one. eg Encourage a child to stand still, rather than tell them to stop running around. Remember that the demand of a direct instruction may increase anxiety for a person with PDA. Therefore a suggestion like  “you may feel calmer if you stand still” or a request such as “could you help me and stand stand still for a moment?” may be more successful than a blunt command of “stand still”.
  • Give emotional and physical space. Take a step backward from the situation, rather than forward into conflict.
  • Encourage a child to exit to a safer place. This may be their bedroom, out of a classroom, outside to the garden or playground. Where possible, guide a child rather than use forced removal. Some children may prefer to hide away in a den, under a table, cover themselves over with a duvet or coat.
  • Don’t threaten sanctions, punishments or offer rewards during a meltdown. The child is beyond reason and unable to respond appropriately. Such interventions are likely to increase anxiety rather than act as an incentive to cease the behaviour. It is a case of ‘can’t’ rather than ‘won’t’.
  • When they are beginning to calm, it may be helpful to offer verbal reassurances to the child.Younger children may be calmed by a hug. asking them "would you like to hug me until you're better?" gives them control, as well as a sense of safety and security.
  • Physical intervention should be a last resort and primarily be used to keep the child or others safe.
  • Be aware of environmental risks. Eg scissors, knives or objects that may be used as a weapon. Other hazards may include glass doors, moving vehicles or proximity to a road.
  • For children who run away during a meltdown, provided there are no safety concerns, following at a distance can be a better strategy rather than chasing after them. 

Important  During a meltdown there may be risks to other people. Parents may wish to consider placing themselves between their child and another person. From age 10 (England and Wales) a child has criminal responsibility.


​After a meltdown

  • At the very least, children will need time to recompose, their ‘safe place’ is a good place to do this.
  • A snack or a drink may help a child calm down and recover.
  • Reassure the child that it’s all over. They may need to hear that you still like/love them. Let them know you understand that they could not help their behaviour.
  • Try to forget what has happened and start afresh.
  • Some children will be very upset by what they have done. They may express remorse or be angry with themselves.
  • Some children can find it helpful to talk about the incident, this can provide insight into triggers and causes. However, this kind of debriefing can be too stressful for many and may precipitate another meltdown.  

>>What is a meltdown?